Been meaning for a little bit to write something in detail about There Will Be Blood. A great film, I should say first and foremost, both despite and because of the fact it’s so incredibly self-consciously aiming to be a Great Film! that wins awards, kudos and a chance to direct and/or star in something else even Greater! next time around. (That is how it works, surely.)
I should also say, in keeping with my general thoughts about movies, that I didn’t want to see this because of either the director or its chief star. I really don’t follow directors or actors or whoever all that much when it comes what catches my eye out of potential interest — it has to be interesting in and of itself, and it also has to not have someone in a prominent role that I can’t stand, because I’m not going to waste my time otherwise. Paul Thomas Anderson I haven’t followed at all since Boogie Nights, which I thought was a pretty great film all in all — so he has a Scorcese/Altman jones in that one, I’ve heard and seen worse. But nothing about Magnolia sounded interesting and Punch-Drunk Love…no. Adam Sandler I can do without.
Meanwhile, Daniel Day-Lewis I’ve really never thought about much anyway. In fact I’ve barely seen him in anything — the most that comes to mind is The Last of the Mohicans, which I think was playing during some trip somewhere I made, and which I idly watched in order to kill time. Besides the whole “STAY ALIVE!” bit, nothing much sticks in the memory. So the fact that he was the lead role didn’t bias my thoughts one way or another for this one, though I know some people can’t stand him and aren’t up for watching the film for that reason. A perfectly sound judgment; I’ve used the equivalent plenty of times on other actors as mentioned.
What ended up amusing me more than anything else was how very very VERY self-conscious Anderson and his studio was at marketing the film as a big epic and important experience for you, the viewer. IIRC even the posters say something at the bottom like “Written and directed for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson,” a clear of a ‘we are important and formal in a classic sense, we are’ sign as any, and for all that it can be seen as knowing wink as much as statement of intent, there’s no sense of irony otherwise in how the film was sold and marketed, much less in its presentation as well.
Still, it all caught my attention — one of those cases where similar elements in other hands or presented in a different way would have elicited a shrug. Enough was going on with this one that I figured I’d give it a chance one afternoon a few weekends back — and I was well rewarded. Yeah, it’s long — glad I snuck out briefly for the restroom break that I did, make sure you do similar — but it’s a magnificently compelling film. I’d place its success foursquare on a quartet — Anderson and Day-Lewis, obviously, but also Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit and Johnny Greenwood, moonlighting from Radiohead to oversee much of the score. With that as the core, the film almost carries itself the rest of the way, since practically everything about the film is designed to settle on, follow and explore — as much as can be shown and/or allowed in the medium of film — one figure alone, Texas oilman Daniel Plainview. If he’s not in shot he’s observing the surroundings from off-camera, and those few scenes that don’t include him at all are all the more noticeable for his absence.
This isn’t a complaint, it’s an acknowledgment — a salute. It’s MEANT to be monomaniacal, it’s supposed to be. It’s one of those things that if you don’t buy into this, you’re going to be bored, irritated, want to leave. To its credit the film, its marketing, its approach never pretends otherwise. With that as a baseline, the trick is to see how well it does with that. It means Day-Lewis has to carry the film near singlehandedly, since it’s all about him or his interactions with others, and to his credit he does. Again, I’m not familiar much with his work, if he’s always reliant on the tricks or beats or styles he employs here. Maybe everybody’s sick of them by now. But the way I described his work to folks after I saw it was that it was one of those performances where you could just sense the controlled anger burning through the screen — controlled being the key, of course. If he was a loud flailer for the whole film, forget it. Instead there’s those incredible slow burns and silences he uses throughout, that just seem to get more intense and tightly wound scene for scene. The instance where he confronts the Standard Oil man who has just made the inadvertant mistake of suggesting how Plainview should raise his son — nearly half a minute of silence before Plainview responds — made me wish I was anywhere else in the world other than opposite the table from him.
The combination of Elswit and Greenwood in selling all this further makes for a pretty remarkable effort in turn — long takes and slow montages of those long takes aren’t new moves, but Elswit gives them a steady grace, letting us follow along at eye level at many points, a participatory observer but just as often shunted to the sidelines while something happened off in the distance a bit, is inaudible, unclear. Not a bad Tarkovsky homage, really (and there are others to be suggested as comparison points, plenty). Greenwood’s music, meanwhile, more often than not makes a scene or sequence — the comparisons to Kubrick’s use of Ligeti are more than understandable, but something like the overwhelming percussion sequence during the explosion and fire at the derrick doesn’t need that kind of parallel to work in its own right. If you took that music out, the feeling of the whole sequence would almost be drowsy; with it, it’s anything but.
Turning back to the film as a whole, though: it’s big looking, sweeping, overwhelming, monomaniacal as mentioned, is designed to be considered, digested and discussed as an epic. But is it? Alfred in his negative assessment of the film suggests not:
It’s weird reading these lazy reviews calling TWBB “epic” — because it spans lots of years? it’s shot in the desert? Anderson chose an “epic”-style font for his titles? This is a Noh drama, stylized yet minimalist.
That’s a very good take that I’d have to agree with, if for slightly different reasons than Alfred’s — as noted, I found the overt mythmaking around the film amusing more than annoying — but it is very stylized and indeed is very minimal by default due to its near-singular focus. Still, it’s not entirely singular, which is to its advantage — and this leads me to my concluding point due to an interesting piece that surfaced in the LA Times over the weekend. In “Smaller Screen, Bigger Potential,” Kate Aurthur considers a very specific issue that I’ve been thinking about recently and which both There Will Be Blood and Cloverfield brought to mind strongly — namely, the contrast between the self-contained narrative one-off and the sprawling modern dramatic TV series.
To quote Aurthur:
We all know that the quality of television has spiked in the last 10 years, as cable channels such as HBO arose to lead the whole industry, networks included, through a creative, competitive boom. And how did it get to this apex? Through stealing from movies, of course. The best dramatic television of recent years, the shows that cause critics to write that we are in a golden age of drama — “Dexter,” “The Shield,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Wire,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost” and others — have lifted storytelling, cinematography, character development and, often, actors from movies. Before the writers strike, it was physically impossible to keep up.
Duh, you might say.
But there’s a certain kind of story, and in particular a certain kind of antihero — one who is profane and morally compromised, yet righteous and magnetic — who now belongs to television. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, with his rage-filled ambition and tiny cracks of humanity and love, is exactly that guy. And “There Will Be Blood” proved to me that movies can’t have him back.
I think that, by the way, because I very much liked “There Will Be Blood.” Paul Thomas Anderson and Day-Lewis created a heart-attack-inducing world in its opening minutes, and I wanted to know everything about it.
She goes on to imagine what a TV series of There Will Be Blood would cover — part humorously, part seriously — and how so much of the detail in the movie would be fleshed out in ways familiar to fans of the kind of series she mentions above, wryly concluding towards the end “Perhaps this back seat carping is why fan fiction exists.” It’s not a deathless piece but I think it’s an honest and appropriate one for this historical moment — the first paragraph above may strike some as simply cliche, but it is a currently dominant trope, this idea that yes, we ARE living in the golden age of TV, it’s finally matured to this level and so forth. It’s not something I’m going to argue against at all.
But it’s also an age I’ve resisted, if not specifically rejected. To explain why goes into more of the reasons why I don’t watch TV in general, but to approach it from the side — back in the mid-1990s an enjoyably trash-humor book was written by Craig Nelson (not THAT Craig Nelson — no T., see) called, simply and straightforwardly, Bad TV. I still have it around — it’s a great summary of most of the 20th century’s pits of American TV weirdness and horribleness — and near the beginning there’s a part which I’d quote directly if this was available on Google Books, but alas I’ll have to paraphrase.
Nelson spells out another point which like Aurthur’s seems blatantly obvious but still is worth spelling out — namely, that if all there was was good TV, then all we’d ever be doing is sitting around all day watching it, doing nothing else. If everything was as compelling as the best of TV up to that point, said Nelson — referring to standards such as Hill Street Blues and M*A*S*H and so forth — then it would suck up all available time otherwise. We’d be doing nothing but that, watching and waiting for the next episodes constantly.
Now that was the mid-nineties — ask yourself if his prediction, maybe, is coming slightly true. Slightly — he’s describing an over-the-top stereotype of a situation, intentionally so; Aurthur is similarly doing so in her piece. Without beating the point into the ground more than necessary, though, Nelson’s take is still a vision I respond to now in this, the ‘golden age.’ The reasons why I resist said age grow out of two intertwined feelings, the first being the realization I have that ultimate there are other artistic and creative interests that hold much greater sway with me than, frankly, just vegging in front of the TV — there’s music, there’s reading, there’s writing, increasingly there’s cooking and photography, and these are just the solitary pursuits I have and prefer, where going out with friends and doing things together and so forth is equally important, essential. Movies are fairly low on that list in general, and TV? Lord, I’d almost consider it an easy cop-out at this point — as I once told friend s1ocki, I’d rather spend two hours working on a recipe than two hours catching up on TiVo recordings.
But lest I sound too harsh — it’s not like you can’t have a life while enjoying a lot of shows that are out there, obviously — to explain my second feeling behind this all: I’ve been there. I’ve been addicted to TV shows before, needing to know every episode, tracking everything obsessively. Honestly, I burnt out on that a long time back — I’d say the turning point was 1994/1995, where not coincidentally I first really got into the Net (make your own jokes and conclusions as you like). Given how much more intense and detailed season arcs have now become, I’d feel even more burned out even more quickly. Let me come to what things I want to in my own time — The Wire, for instance, sounds wonderful and I do want to get around to that at some point — and don’t be surprised if it’s, say, years after a series ends. There are plenty of other things for me to do in the meantime than wonder about how, say, they’re going to get off the damn island in Lost, though I perfectly understand why people would be wondering and why such a show would be good enough to warrant that attention.
So what does this have to do with There Will Be Blood? Tie this view back in through Aurthur’s piece and one thing I like about the film is the fact that it doesn’t explain everything, that it leaves things open and unsure while still being, to quote Alfred again, ‘stylized yet minimalist.’ I don’t need sequels, backstories, ARGs, fan fiction, extended special episodes and one-offs on secondary characters — and let me emphasize that I’m not saying these kind of things shouldn’t be done, merely that I don’t need them in order to feel satisfied by a dramatic production in its own right, 2 hours rather than 62. It suits my feelings on many things right now, to enjoy many different things to the full in the way that succeeds for me and doesn’t feel like a drag on my time, a regular slog of commitment to do nothing but catch up on the latest great episode of the latest great show — because there’s another latest great episode down the pike, as Aurthur snarkily admits up front. As I’ve said before, I find it hard enough to keep up in any reasonable sense with all the music out there right now, in floods and floods, while my book list from the library alone is huge — I’m not interested in overscheduling myself anymore, however implicitly. Meantime, in my irregular attempts at fiction, I aim not for series but something self-contained — if The Torment of His Dreams is ever finished to my satisfaction, it will stand alone. I will intend to say no more about that universe and milieu, and I really enjoy those writers and creators who can and do act similarly, moving on because there’s something else of specific interest to them instead.
Naturally I don’t need to say this just about There Will Be Blood, of course — heck, pick most most movies, most books. But There Will Be Blood and Cloverfield were the two most recent I’ve seen, and Cloverfield has its ARG and its comics and stories and fan fiction, and there’s already been talk of the inevitable sequel, furthered by the fact that the film’s creators have been overt about saying that the monster isn’t dead at the end of the movie. Hey, go for it. But it’s just plain nice to have a film that will be itself, that for all the questions and objections and ponderings it might raise doesn’t have to feel a need to inevitably answer a question of “Yeah…and then what happened?,” that ends on just the right words.