Monday, January 21, 2008

 

Up through the ground came a bubblin' crud


By Edward Copeland
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives. I was thinking about coining the phrase, "There are no third acts in Paul Thomas Anderson films," except that in the case of There Might Be Blood, there isn't much of a first or second act either.

I think my father, who saw the film with me, summed it up best. "At first, I thought it was going to be about an oil war, then I thought it was going to be him versus the preacher, but eventually I realized it wasn't going to be about anything."

To paraphrase Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," Anderson has a head full of ideas that may be drivin' him insane.


This isn't to say that There Will Be Blood lacks any positive qualities, because the cinematography by Robert Elswit is phenomenal. However, the film really is a thudding bore, so much so that parts of the annoying score by Jonny Greenwood seem to actually drone like an amplified tuning fork and bear an uncanny resemblance to that sound that used to accompany the old THX "The Audience Is Listening" promos played in movie theaters.

For most of the film, Daniel Day-Lewis' performance held my attention, despite the film's ponderous pacing and lack of focus. In fact, I was at first puzzled by the people who complained that Day-Lewis was over the top. I wished I'd never read whoever said Day-Lewis was aping John Huston, because every time he spoke that image did come to mind. Unfortunately, Day-Lewis' performance goes off the rails as the film drags on and he suddenly starts devouring the scenery as if he needed it for nourishment.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when he goes wrong: The scene where he's dining with his son and a group of rival oil executives are seated at a nearby table. For some reason, Day-Lewis begins talking out loud so they can hear while a cloth napkin covers his face.

I can only assume that by this point Day-Lewis was as bored with the movie as I was. The ham gets the better of him from that point on so by the time we get to the scenes of him as an aging recluse in a large Kane-esque mansion in 1927, he's stooping and shuffling around as if he's a cousin to Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf, dancing across the two-lane bowling alley he's built in his home. Of course, as soon as we see the bowling alley, you have to know what's coming. It's not placed there by accident, so as Day-Lewis meanders around the bowling lane, you know that balls will be employed and pins will be used for other purposes.

So much is wrongheaded about There Will Be Blood, that I hardly know where to start. Do I complain about how the portion of the film involving Paul Dano's character covers 16 years, yet the actor looks no different in age in the 1911 scenes than he does in the 1927 ones? Do I ask why Daniel Plainview makes such unnecessary complications for himself? Do I ask what is the true deal about Paul and Eli Sunday? Are they twins? The same person with multiple personalities? It hardly matters anyway.

At one point, Plainview says that he doesn't like to explain himself and that seems to apply to Paul Thomas Anderson's film as well. Now many great films have been made that toiled in the soil of the ambiguous, but they aren't all as goddamn boring as There Will Be Blood. Do I debate whether the film is asking whether it's Daniel or preacher Eli Sunday who is truly the false prophet? Perhaps Anderson is the false prophet at work here and his proponents, many of whom I know well, like and admire, are the ones being hoodwinked.

One thing I never quite understand is the insistence some of his fans have about calling him P.T. Anderson. The credit on There Will Be Blood clearly says it was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Is it possible some of his fans could be more pretentious than the filmmaker himself? During one outburst, Eli Sunday yells at his father that God doesn't love stupid people. I don't know if any part of that is true, but my guess is that if there is a God, he doesn't love stupid movies.


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Comments:
His fanboys call him "P.T. Anderson" because it evokes another P.T.: P.T. Barnum. He said "There's a sucker born every minute." I think Anderson's counting on it with this film, his most empty film ever.

Whenever people start foaming at the mouth and threatening others who don't like a particular movie, I immediately call bullshit. People don't just love this movie, they worship it, yet I can't get a straight answer out of the ones I've challenged as to why. Are they so afraid of missing the bandwagon that's crowning Anderson as the new Altman? You don't get to be Altman just because you were his death insurance. And Altman knows how to craft a third act too.

I admit I'm not a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but nobody can say I have no appreciation of his work, as I've had good things to say about his could-have-been-a-masterpiece Hard Eight, Boogie Nights (which I gave a good review to), and two aspects of the otherwise hideous Magnolia. So let me stop the angry fans I know this post will draw in advance from stating their typical defense. Tell me why it's such a great movie to YOU. Don't tell me why I'm an asshole for disliking it; that's an opinion of yours that interests me in the least (and is a cop-out).

Even at his best, Anderson doesn't know how to craft a third act. But There Will be Blood is all sound and fury signifying nothing. If this had been in 3-D, Day-Lewis would have chewed the theater along with all the scenery he's eating. Dano is completely miscast, and perhaps the only good performance in the film comes from the kid. And I'm glad that Greenwood's music sounded like the THX music to you too. Except instead of "the audience is listening," it should have said "The Odienator is sleeping."

One thing I think we all can agree on is that the film looks spectacular. If there's one Oscar I would be fine with TWBB winning, it's the cin-tog Oscar. This is very well shot. I just wish I had something of substance to look at through all that fine camerawork.
 
I think I liked the film a lot more than you did.

But, just to answer a couple questions.

About the napkin scene, since the son is deaf, he put the napkin over his head so he wouldn't read his lips, and he wanted the oil men to hear what he said.

And about Paul Dano playing both roles, he was originally set to play only one, but the other actor was fired, so they brought him in to play the other. They are supposed to be different characters.
 
I can see the thing about the napkin, though I don't know why he wouldn't want the kid to know he made a deal with Union Oil. As for the two Dano parts, my guess is that most moviegoers will have no knowledge of casting details and the film should have explained the difference much more clearly. I heard several people in the showing I attended asking about that on their way out.
 
Oh, this made my day. Thanks!
 
Haven't seen this movie, and when I do I may wholeheartedly disagree with you. But I do love a full-throated contrarian response, especially in the face of such near-universal praise. The film may have bored you, but your review certainly entertained me.
 
I'm not writing a review, but I just wanted to say that There Will Be Blood is probably my favorite film of the year. I adored Once as well. I can understand people not liking this film, but for what it's worth, I loved it.

Mark
 
I haven't seen this film yet, despite the fact that it's been playing here for about a month - I honestly haven't been able to work up the enthusiasm. It's not just the length - the trailer put me off.

Christie gives a lovely, fine performance in Away from Her - but there was nothing so special about her work in Afterglow ten years ago that merited her winning the NYFCC and NSFC prizes.

The reason the critics fall all over themselves whenever someone like Julie Christie or Daniel Day-Lewis makes a film is simple: mystique. Day-Lewis has appeared in exactly three films in the last ten years (he's made a total of 8 since winning his Oscar nearly 20 years ago). His process of total immersion in a role makes him a somewhat mysterious figure - as does the fact that seems to prefer making shoes and cabinets to making films.

When Day-Lewis started winning prizes left and right for Gangs of New York five years ago, he was coming back from a long hiatus. It was a good performance, overall, if very mannered - but I think the reason the critics went so ga-ga for him had a lot to do with the mystique surrounding an elusive and mysterious figure - perhaps, with Christie, they're the only ones left in this age of media saturation coverage of all things entertainment-oriented (the two of them make Sean Penn look about as accesible as Sharon Stone). It was as if J.D. Salinger had just come out with a new novel.

I haven't seen There Will Be Blood yet, so I can't speak to the merits of the performance - but, from the very beginning, I've suspected that the performance had less to do with the praise and accolades than the person they were being bestowed upon.
 
I generally like to give people the benefit of the doubt. That is, to assume they genuinely like the movie rather than that they are hoodwinked by it. But the dealbreaker for me here is Paul Dano's performance. Each of his scenes felt like they were warm-up exercises: I felt embarrassed for him. That performance in any other context - say in a Ron Howard movie - would have been buried under heaps & heaps of critical scorn.
 
Re: Jon Hastings... It's generally good form to continue assuming that other people's likes and dislikes are genuine, whether they gibe with your own or not. Just a friendly tip.

I thought Dano's performance was fantastic in this film, nearly the equal of Day-Lewis, in fact. Dano's playing a boyish faker who projects himself into this uber-confident preacher persona, and in this context his awkward bluster is just perfectly pitched. I never would have expected he was capable of this kind of performance, he really surprised me, but I like to think I'd recognize this kind of virtuosity even in a Ron Howard film (however unlikely it might be that Howard could encourage such a performance).
 
As much as I disliked the film, I did think Dano did get OK with what he was given except for the ending scenes where there is absolutely no evidence that he is 16 years older than when we first met him.
 
So I see you and Odienator really liked this movie - a lot! Well, I actually did like it but for reasons that may not please its fans or Paul Anderson. I remarked in my write-up on its ending that I laughed throughout the entire end sequence because it was just so... you know, insane. And completely at odds with the rest of the movie. Oh yeah, and completely unnecessary. And so to answer Odienator's question, that's why I liked it. I liked it because it bordered on being a train wreck but, at least in my opinion, just missed being one and became entertaining instead. In fact, I found Lewis immensely entertaining as Daniel Plainview. Watching him was enough to keep me going with it.

If you read my piece on Cinema Styles I explain it further but if you don't want to bother then my basic premise with Anderson is that he's reckless and unformed and so are his movies. And sometimes I get so goddamned sick of formally well-done films that I want to take in a One From the Heart or a There Will Be Blood. Sometimes I want to see a film that is a big honking mish-mash of styles and ideas thrown at me recklessly. Not all the time but sometimes.

And yes the third act (or whatever act it was) was insane but I wouldn't go so far as to say the film is about nothing. It's pretty clearly about a man named Daniel Plainview who gets into oil and adopts a son and uses his son as he spreads his business (First Act). Then he abandons his son (physically and emotionally), attacks the preacher because of guilt building up inside over it, adopts a brother he thinks he has as his partner to make up for the loss of his son, then realizes he was duped and kills said brother(Second Act). After this point Daniel has shut out the world. Whenever he let it in (his son and pseudo brother) it betrayed him. He descends into bitter loneliness and madness (Third Act). So no offense to your father (and really, honestly, no offense intended at all - I don't want to diss the family here) but I'm assuming he was simply making a sly remark because anyone seeing a film concerned with studying a character should know that what the film is about is the character. If one doesn't know that one should quickly bone up on it.

As to the makeup neither Lewis nor Dano looked any different at all to me in the final scene which I thought was a bit odd. I mean, Dano especially could have used something. Hell, I don't know, give him a beard, anything.

So anyway, I'll shut up now. I enjoyed it a lot. I don't quite understand Paul Anderson worship as he is too discombobulated as a writer/director so far to deserve it but I also don't understand the hostile vehemence with which some seem to have for anything he touches. I think he has a lot of talent and may well improve over time but I have a feeling when he does I won't enjoy his movies anymore. It's the "I don't really know what in the hell I'm doing" quality that I like about them right now.
 
I sort of understand what you mean Jonathan. I loved the crazy ending sequence in Boogie Nights with Alfred Molina and the drug deal gone bad, even though it seemed to be out of a different movie. I liked Boogie Nights overall, but I always felt he cheated by wrapping it up as he did instead of addressing the impact of AIDS on the porn industry. In Magnolia, he sets it up to be a story about odd coincidences with those three stories Ricky Jay tells (two of which had been used on TV's Homicide), but then he ends with the frogs which really wasn't coincidental at all, it just happened in the city where all the film's characters happened to be.
 
Re: Ed Howard - I was just building on Ed C.'s comment that Anderson has hoodwinked his proponents. That is usually I would disagree with his phrasing, but in this case, I can see why he is putting it that way. Maybe you should direct your friendly tip towards him, too?
 
The no third act in an Anderson movie is the pithiest summation I can think of, even though I liked the first two acts of "Blood" very much. Yes, Anderson resorts to a hail of frogs, near-cannibalism and that strange "bastard-in-a-basket" monologue in movies that don't end but stop. Yet "Blood" is an amazing character study of the unsocialized American who sucked dry the nation's natural resources and I found Day-Lewis hypnotic, even as I knew he was aping both John Huston's performance in "Chinatown" and Walter Huston's in "TReasure of the Sierra Madre."
 
Yeah, I love the frogs but I've always felt it was put in for "pose power" more than anything else. Still, I liked it. But the scene you describe in Boogie Nights is my definite favorite - that and Wahlberg and Reilly in the recording booth at the studio.

And now I'll have to work out some new Pose Power ratings for movies I review with Magnolia's frogs being the gold standard.
 
Jon: Sorry, I shouldn't've picked you out there, since I did actually have the same problem with Ed C's original comment and other scattered comments here. I'm just not sure I get why negative comments on films by some of these "name" modern auteurs like Anderson so often include snide asides against those who like the films. You just wound up being a convenient target since I also wanted to respond to your comments on Dano's performance. So, my apologies for singling you out.
 
Count me in as a major fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. It started for me when I saw "Hard Eight" in a theater of about 5 people after hearing Siskel and Ebert rave about it. The long tracking shots, the moody score, the complete unwillingness to satisfy certain cinematic expectations (like for example just how long he keeps the camera trained on Philip Baker Hall when he first enters the dark hotel room to help out John)- it all worked for me and continued to work in every film therafter.

Josh R.- I disagree with your assessment of Day Lewis' critical acceptance- when you see "There Will Be Blood", watch how careful he is with his acting. His silences often speak louder than his words. That is why Day Lewis is loved... he melts into each performance seamlessly. It's a frightening, clear-eyed performance.

Odienator- I personally love "There Will Be Blood" because to me its a perfect mixture of music, theme and image. And yes, I feel like there's a big point being made here about two larger-than-life figures representing diametrically opposed agendas in early 20th century America. Their both after wealth and power, of course, but by different means. While I hesitate to call it allegorical, there's something otherwordly in the way Eli and Plainview interact- watch the way Plainview casually whispers something in the ear of Eli after being 'baptized' (which feels more like an improvised but magical moment just the same) or how hearing the words "brother Daniel, it's Eli" awakens Plainview from a deep, drunkened stupor in the crazy final scene. Little moments like these shifted my belief that Anderson was after something bigger than just the idea that two men hate each other.

And all of this ties together as to why I love Anderson. I think there is something beyond mimicry to his work. All of his films are so full of charged images, improvised delights and epic canvases that they hold me spellbound.
 
Odienator - All this act business is a little ridiculous. Are you making mental notes on the ending and beginning of these "acts"? Perhaps you are making a flow chart? What about Anderson's rising actions? Do they rise properly? I for one find no merit in crediting or discrediting a film based on theories of narrative construction. Take a film on its own merits. I wouldn't complain about "acts" in Tsai Ming-Liang's films, and I think to do it here is a little silly. The ending, for me, is a logical conclusion to Plainview's life. Unlike a few critics, I didn't feel it came out of nowhere, and can not possible foresee an alternative ending. This is the only ending possible, something I felt from the films opening sequences.

I enjoyed There Will Be Blood because of its affective qualities. I am a huge P.T.! fan, yet I was worried about Lewis' performance in advance. Yet, I think it is actually quite contained. Its the way he gazes and works his mouth in silence that are the mesmerizing moments. Watch him study Eli as he asks for an introduction so that he can bless the well. He is taking him in, judging him, planning his demise, all in a gaze.

I would actually argue that Dano is the weak point in the film. When he isn't clearly acting (the character, not Dano) his dialogue feels a little forced and read.

For me, this is a great American story that resonated positively with me, just as I imagine it resonated negatively with those who didn't like it. Really, is that not justification enough to like it?
 
I promise to comment further after I revisit the film in question, but I just want to say that regardless of opinion, your review is pretty poor, Ed...
 
Anthony, if you are referring to my writing as being poor, that's fine. That's an opinion. If you are referring to my opinion about the movie as being poor, you must remember that there are no rights and wrongs when it comes to opinions about films or other works of art. They are all subjective and all valid. There isn't an objective truth as to whether something is good or bad. If you disagree with a critic, that doesn't make your opinion any less valid than his or hers.
 
We do not publish anonymous comments, see where it says that above. Also, you can't say that everyone can have an opinion (which is true: all opinions are subjective) and then suggest that if one differs from yours it must have been written by an idiot. My review is as equally valid as the one you didn't want to take the time to write, preferring to resort to name calling in the dark because, like so many people, you get insecure when someone attacks something you love. You are perfectly right to love it just as I am perfectly right to hate it. Furthermore, while there are critics who take contrarian views for contrarian sake (I give you Armond White), I am not one of those. My reactions are how I feel when I see a film, not a reaction to others' reactions. You need to get some self-esteem and not get so upset when someone disagrees with you for fear you might have been wrong. You aren't wrong. All opinions are valid because when you are assessing movies (or books, music, etc.), anyone's opinion is a valid one. Opinions are like assholes: everyone has one, especially people who get so bent out of shape they resort to anonymous name calling when they crawl out of their There Will Be Blood circle jerk forum board. :-)
 
OK, I concede that I, and many others, are too harsh on critics like yourself, especially when it comes to movies like There Will Be Blood, films that are unconventional and mystifying in many ways; when I first experienced Anderson's film, I didn't know WHAT the heck I had just seen, and needed another viewing to get my head around it; I can appreciate that critics like yourself are not afforded a relaxed schedule when it comes to watching and reviewing films, and there is only so much time you can take, thought you can give, and viewings you can commit to, before you need to offer up your verdict in the form of a review (trust me, I know the similar feeling of being given 14 days to digest a CDs worth of music before having to submit an educated/informed analysis/opinion); I imagine it sometimes frustrates you (and others in your position) to not have as much of a chance to let films settle and resonate the way that mere consumers can do at their leisure (especially these days with DVD); I'm not presuming that you would necessarily change your opinion if you saw the film again, but I do recognise that your position is different to the one that myself and other film fans are in, and that I should cut you guys some slack from time to time!
Having re-watched the film, and re-read your review, I do still think the final paragraph is merely irrelevant spite (sometimes he bills himself as PT, sometimes as Paul Thomas; it's a non-issue that should have better researched or left out of the review), and I laugh at the classic condescension of the penultimate paragraph: 'You've all been fooled! I'm the wise child who can see the Emperor is naked!' - but your opinion is valid and generally well-enough expressed for what you have to say...
I don't claim that the film is perfect, and it DOES sometimes feel like one of the most under-inhabited and ambiguous American epics ever made (almost on a par with 2001, though that marvellous milestone was filled with outer-space wonders rather than earthly lanscapes and consequently elicits a different kind of reaction) - but I do say I was fascinated by it, in ways that are sometimes difficult to express (call me empty and evasive if you wish), but what does come through so strongly is the father-son relationship (and the theme of family in general, with the appearance of Henry), and I think this is the glue that holds Anderson's film together when it threatens to become unwieldy; the stuff centred around themes of religion and capitalism and nation-building is more dicey and troubling (at least in terms of making a statement or even a point), but I think the texture of the film is rich enough, and the tone individual enough, for the film to be worthy of praise, though I won't call it a masterpiece (even though I suspect Anderson IS a master) - Magnolia, on the other hand: THERE'S a masterpiece!
 
It is true that sometimes a second viewing will cause you to reassess a film, but in my case, that's usually if I'm ambivalent in the first place and most times I find myself sticking by my original take. An exception is Before Sunrise, where I ended up liking it a lot better upon a second viewing. I had to fall in love with Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart before I could go back and appreciate Blue Velvet. One of the few complete 180s I've ever done is Reds, but I think a lot of that accounts for the fact that my original viewing was in junior high and my second was as an adult. Other films, such as There Will Be Blood, I don't feel the need to revisit because I disliked so much of it the first time (and of Anderson's work in general) that it wouldn't be worth my time. My comment immediately above you is, I admit, awfully snarky but some filmmakers evoke a sort of worship that borders on a religious cult and I wrote that in response to an anonymous, insecure slam and I don't publish anonymous quotes. There are no wrong opinions when it comes to movies and people (as in the anonymous note) can't really form one to defend their own and get so frazzled when someone launches a full-throated opinion in the opposite direction. Life is too short to revisit films you really disliked the first time. There isn't enough time to see new stuff or to rewatch the movies you love as much as you'd like to. The funniest thing to me is that I think the first comment by Odienator is even meaner than my review is.
 
Thank you for another speedy and gracious reply! It got me thinking that possibly the only movie I myself have watched twice and disliked both times is The Departed...
 
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