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Well, There Was Blood January 13, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Buoyed forward by a riveting performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and the usual smattering of intense scenes we expect from director PT Anderson, There Will Be Blood left me totally at sea – my initial reaction was “I don’t know what the hell to think of that” and a day later, I nearly still feel that way.

Much like in his other films Magnolia & Boogie Nights, Anderson is a genius at constructing individual scenes within a film – specific episodes that focus our attention on particular aspects of characters and/or the way they react to the situations around them. I think back to the brilliant POV camera and fades while Dirk Diggler showed us his spiffy new digs, or the amazing sequence with Alfred Molina as a coke tooting Rick Springfield-karaoke-from-hell and this became the sort of cinematic skill I expect to see in an Anderson movie. It’s here again, especially in a wonderful opening sequence, without dialogue, showing us the gradual rise of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) from a lone prospector breaking his body in a deep dark hole in the ground to the leader of a small crew of primitive oilmen drawing buckets of sludge from the ground. Other incidents in the film are also designed beautifully from a visual viewpoint – Daniel’s awakenings while swimming as to his newfound half-brother, the subtle bond formed on a train ride between Daniel and the baby son he has adopted from a fallen co-worker, and the numerous sweeping shots where we rise up over the empty land to see the vastness of what Daniel and others like him developed, exploited and transformed. Other images of the risk, danger and primitive mechanics of oil drilling a hundred years ago are also presented to us in ways that place us within the action of every risky success, and every painful or deadly accident. The shot-by-shot construction of these sequences is nothing short of brilliant.

But as with other Anderson movies, the story does not hold together. Boogie Nights works as a series of semi-connected incidents because the ultimate fate of its characters is already known to us beyond the time period of the film. We do not need to see how the porn crowd of the ’70s fared in the age of video or as they grew older and fatter and lost their marketable sex appeal (This is where I stop identifying with the movie, if you must know), we already know how these people are in denial about all sorts of things, so that while we watch the random string of events that make up the course of the film, we can view all those episodes within that context. It’s similar to the choice made by the film Ed Wood, that ends with Wood being ever the optimist after making Plan 9 From Outer Space, instead of taking us through what came afterwards: the dreariness of his later softcore films and unfortunate death before his recontextualizing into a camp-genius of sorts, something I think he would have relished as much as William Shatner enjoys similar status among his fans, making his death even sadder. Magnolia showed us seemingly disconnected incidents and then tried (and failed, if you ask me) to tie them together via biblical metaphor. There Will Be Blood telegraphs the fate of its character similarly to how we view Boogie Nights, but this time we’re shown the results in the end, and though we’ve seen it before in countless other films, it’s presented to us as if it’s some sort of revelation.

The plotline of There Will Be Blood follows Daniel’s rise, and while based on the Upton Sinclair book Oil!, the movie dispenses with the novel’s emphasis on the father/son arguments over capitalism versus socialism and presents a picture of the monomaniacal capitalist and the rather predictable rewards he reaps despite their ultimate emptiness. There seems to be some attempts at showing us the bond between father and adoptive son here, but Daniel’s displays of emotion (most often anger at people supposedly telling him how to raise the boy) come out of nowhere, and there is no emotional center to the film stemming from this relationship. This is not a film about a character evolving or changing. Daniel begins and ends the film without a soul and utterly eager to sacrifice his entire life on the altar of material wealth. At least Charles Foster Kane wanted love & his childhood back after he had amassed a fortune – Daniel Plainview becomes totally one dimensional as the film goes on illustrating his character but never really developing it, and also moving its plot forward by having him make two monumentally stupid mistakes that are completely out of character for him (I don’t want to give away any spoilers here, but I’ll say that a couple of the major plot points of this film result from such machinations.) The first part of the film flows better than the second, since the first gives us a compelling portrait of the rise of a ruthless businessman – but then in the second half of the film, both the movie and its main character become more erratic, volatile and out of control – and there seems to be no reason for it other than to show us erratic, volatile and out of control things. This is where I stopped trying to follow the film and realized that I was, yet again, watching a random set of wonderfully constructed and directed scenes that had no relation to a cohesive plot or (more importantly) theme. Once the film has abandoned any sort of unified structure, it devolves into its finale, a final confrontation between two characters who are no more than over-the-top caricatures by this time. Though entertaining, this supposed payoff winds up feeling utterly empty and fleeting, and I couldn’t help but extend that sensation to the rest of the film as the end credits ran.

There’s a great moment (among many) in Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful 1952 seamy-underside-of-Hollywood story, The Bad & The Beautiful, where movie director Von Ellstein (Ivan Triesault) argues with his producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) over how to direct a scene in the movie they are making. While Shields’ objects, Von Ellstein tells him “Of course I could make this scene a climax. I could make every scene in this movie a climax, but a movie with all climaxes is like a pearl necklace without a string, it falls apart.”

Where is Von Ellstein, now that we need him, to teach PT Anderson how to make a movie that doesn’t fall apart?

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