There Will Be Blood

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007).

The projector at my local theater had a bad lens, so all throughout my viewing of There Will Be Blood, various parts of the screen were out of focus. Sometimes, as a result of the staff's ongoing but futile attempts to correct the problem, the entire screen was also skewed slightly counter-clockwise. All this left me with a much worse headache than the carefully controlled handheldness of Cloverfield. Nevertheless, because I am a person who draws eccentric connections between mechanical accident and artistic structure, this optical torture helped alert me to the film's deft management of composition in the frame (particularly the use of complex depth-of-field arrangements), and made me all the more aware of these techniques' function as a stylistic correlative to the drama of human distances and barriers at the heart of the story.

When multiple subjects share the frame, they do so in often oblique ways. Again, this is the case on the levels of both composition and camera focus. Sometimes two or more figures occupy positions that parallel each other, even as they emphasise relations of mutual alienation. For example, in one scene Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the man who has recently presented himself as his hitherto-unknown "brother from a different mother" Henry (Kevin J. Connor) sit side by side on the beach, each clasping his knees in profile, but with Day-Lewis on the far side of Connor from us, and to the right in the frame. It is at this moment that Daniel lands on a way not to have to assume the hardship of a brotherly relationship with Henry, and even before we know fully what this means, the schism is broadcast by the vivid way in which their similar postures belie a deeper difference between them. At other times, figures in the background refuse to come into focus with figures in the foreground, or vice versa (sometimes it is more complicated than a simple background/foreground contrast). This is particularly the case when Daniel has interactions with men of more privilege, wealth, and power than himself (the scene in the restaurant where he places the napkin over his face is a signal instance), or with persons who make claims on his loyalty and affections that are impossible for him (i.e., any and all such claims). The entire movie is a series of rejections, exclusions, and estrangements, depicted in an assortment of physically realized ways. Day-Lewis's snarling speech on "drainage" in the film's final scenes is exemplary, as is the mad bowling-lane fracas that follows it.

It's an exceptionally stimulating film in all kinds of ways. It reminds me more than anything else of those "flawed masterpieces" of the seventies and eighties, sprawling historical epics like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America or Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate: films, that is, in which the directors' ambitions ran up against the limited pocketbooks and patience of the studios, so that the "finished" products were clearly truncated fragments, full of frustrating gaps. Anderson, however, seems to have cultivated this effect intentionally, perhaps partly as a nod to what is for him an especially formative part of his cinematic upbringing, but also as a way of messing with our expectations around the American historical genre. Whereas Leone, Cimino, and others arguably were aiming for an impossible epic ideal and inevitably falling short, Anderson acknowledges this impossibility and turns it into an acerbic anti-narrative gesture. As with the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, or with Frank Darabont's The Mist, it is not until the final frame that you realize exactly how off the mark your guess at the kind of movie you've been watching has been (just as those around Daniel Plainview have never had what they believed they had with him, either materially or emotionally). Anderson's subversion of expectations is subtler, but in its own way nastier. It risks contempt not just for generic convention, but for narrative itself. The risk pays off because, to a degree that surpasses No Country and The Mist, we come closer to being convinced successfully that the story we expected was not necessarily the story we really wanted.


Mystery Street

Jan Sterling in Mystery Street (dir. John Sturges, 1950).

Ricardo Montalban.

The skull beneath Jan Sterling's skin.

Top three things that make this movie really good:

1. John Alton's cinematography. Check out the matching highlights on Sterling's décolletage and the little hula dancer on the lamp. Or Montalban in the handball court: way to work the deep focus.
2. Elsa Lanchester as the landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (yes, Smerrling). Maybe her best role ever. She's stupidly clever, charmingly slimy, farcically tragic. Her roomer Jackie, played by Betsy Blair, provides an effective foil with her closed-up savvy and streetwise dignity.
3. Jan Sterling. Even though she's got a small part, she's the soul--or ghost--of the film in a way. She makes walking downstairs into an artform. Side note: I was trying to think why she looked so familiar, and then I realized that Avon Books used a still of her and Marshall Thompson from this film for the cover of the 1999 paperback edition of James Ellroy's 1982 novel Clandestine.



Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo (dir. Werner Herzog, 1982).

The clanging, histrionic swelling of the Popol Vuh score is my first point of reference for this film, which I watched for the first time last week. Back in 1982 I became very familiar with the soundtrack, as my brother played it obsessively (when he died four years ago, it was one of the small handful of his LPs that I set aside to keep, even though I don't have a record player). Perhaps partly for this reason, the music was absolutely central to me upon finally seeing the movie. The slow, steady progression up to and including the dragging of the steamboat over the mountain feels itself like an excruciating symphonic movement, a largely impressionistic set of vague symbols in increasingly massive relation to each other. Kinski's face provides the perfect register of this movement's emotional intricacy, in both his spectatorial capacity as enthusiastic opera buff, and his composer-like role as Herzog's surrogate. The music seems like a wild, irrational emanation of his soul--and not just as an abstract representation of what he feels, but what he imagines causing concretely to be heard.

The story's resolution flies in the face of conventional expectations around narrative tension, but yields its own organic integrity and surprising shapeliness: a blithe subversion of inevitability, culminating in a space of blank epiphany that can be experienced as either statically existential or dynamically joyous.



Some actors whose names I'm not bothering to look up in Cloverfield (dir. Matt Reeves, 2008).

It is kind of scary. But then, so are thunderstorms. And big trucks driving by at night on the road outside your house. If you're me.

I'm not sure how to feel about the obviously 9/11-derived imagery (fireballs, skyscrapers collapsing, huge clouds of smoke billowing toward the camera between concrete corridors, pedestrians stumbling around coated with dust). I think it may be in bad taste or something. Or a pretentious stab at commentary on the way in which the media has conditioned our responses. Or both. I was too busy holding my breath to evaluate it carefully. Did I mention it was kind of scary?

Oh, in case you hadn't heard, it's about a huge squid-looking thing attacking Manhattan, filmed Blair-Witch style by a group of twentysomethings.


Act of Violence

Van Heflin in Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinneman, 1948).

Robert Ryan.

Van Heflin, Mary Astor, and Berry Kroeger.

Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a solid citizen: a war vet and a successful contractor with a beautiful, adoring wife (Janet Leigh). Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) is an old army buddy who remembers all too well that Frank's history has some blemishes in it. Now Joe is on a near-maniacal vendetta, having traveled across the continent to see justice done--his way (tagline: "the manhunt no woman could stop"). The two leads offset each other nicely: each is sympathetic in his way, but both are just screwed up enough to make you consider rooting for the other guy. When the showdown finally comes, it's a rehearsal for Zinneman's later masterpiece High Noon, clock and all.

Heflin and Ryan are both in top form, but the real revelation here is Mary Astor as Pat, a hooker with a heart of thin gold plate ("You're unhappy? There's no law says you've got to be happy"). If you only know her from The Maltese Falcon, you may be stunned at her range upon watching this. Also riveting is Berry Kroeger (billed as Barry Kroeger), playing a hit man with a terrifying smile and the personality of a scorpion.

Excellent cinematography by Robert Surtees and score by Bronislau Kaper.


Leave Her to Heaven

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (dir. John M. Stahl, 1945).

Cornel Wilde.

Jeanne Crain.

Beautiful people made of breathing wax live in a technicolor country of sleepy lakes and impossibly huge swimming pools, falling in love and freaking each other out and succumbing to crippling ennui. On the surface, it looks very much like a Sirk film, but Sirk's people are always straining after an ethical ideal that is ever so close to being actually grounded in the real world and its material conflicts. They burst their hearts open with glamorous social relevance. Stahl's players are oblivious to things like racial injustice and oppressive labor conditions. There is no working class. There is little evidence of any kind of work, beyond that performed smilingly and voluntarily by placid extras who cease to exist once they have added their small flourishes to the general human decor. What there is is an awful lot of water. Even the indoor scenes have a strange liquid quality, as if at any minute all the characters and their problems and their pretty houses might sink into a spreading ocean of bad consciousness. Gorgeous to look at, but arid, trite, and depressing overall.


The Crimson Pirate

Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat aggressively embodying their unfettered masculinity in The Crimson Pirate (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1952)...

...as a corrective to having severely compromised it in this scene.

Tourneur's The Flame and the Arrow was a hit, and for the follow-up (not a sequel--the characters are virtually identical, but this one takes place in the eighteenth century), another noir giant, Robert Siodmak, switches genres to take the directorial reins. The Crimson Pirate is much more conventionally robust and action-packed than its predecessor, and in truth, considerably more (mindless) fun to watch, even if the images don't linger in the mind as long afterward. You can see much of the spirit that inspired the Pirates of the Carribean franchise here, and even some specific character models, I would guess. Tell me, for example, if the pirate who gets his pegleg caught in the ship's grate during the climactic fight scene doesn't prefigure the guy with the wooden eyeball in the Verbinski films.


The Flame and the Arrow

Virginia Mayo in The Flame and the Arrow (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1950).

Swashbuckler set in medieval Spain, starring Burt Lancaster and his long-time acrobatic sidekick Nick Cravat. A charming piece of lusty folderol, with the added novelty that someone seems to have instructed the actors not to speak like they were doing Shakespeare (an annoying affectation in historical film to this day). The result, as I recall is also the case in Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, is that the movie gains in familiar intimacy what it loses in high-church solemnity. Nevertheless, Cravat's Brooklyn accent was apparently a little too much, so they made his character a mute (as in The Crimson Pirate two years later, also with Lancaster). Scorsese had no such qualms with his actors in Temptation.

Tourneur is not working at the height of his powers here: there's not enough darkness and gentle eeriness, though at times these qualities peer through, as in the semi-tragic figure of the hero's ex-wife (Lynn Baggett), or the wryly melancholic troubadour Apollo (Norman Lloyd). And as in Tourneur's Canyon Passage, the technicolor is vivid, but just muted enough to lend an air of storybook fadedness. Look for a funny cameo by Philip Van Zandt as a disgruntled dance instructor.


I'm Not There

Cate Blanchett as a Dylan doppelganger and David Cross as Allen Ginsberg in I'm Not There (dir. Todd Haynes, 2007).

I loved Safe and Far from Heaven, but this almost makes me detest Todd Haynes. The "postmodern" structure is embarrassingly dated--people were doing lots of fractured storyline stuff like this in the nineties, and it wasn't much more interesting then. Two hours and fifteen minutes feels much longer. Christian Bale is particularly embarrassing to watch. Actually, almost everyone is embarrassing except the astounding Cate Blanchett, who deserves more than an Oscar. She deserves her own country or something.

A lot of the music is very good. I especially liked the Calexico cover of "Going to Acapulco."


The Darjeeling Limited

Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody (upside down) in The Darjeeling Limited (dir. Wes Anderson, 2007).

It's great until about halfway through: the three leads play off each other wittily, and the constraint of confining the action to the train (with a few short station stops) provides a formally pleasing compactness. Then they get kicked off and everything goes slack. Anderson feels compelled to adhere to his formula of injecting a poignant dollop of tragedy, which snuffs out the comic spark that glimmers so consistently up to that moment. From then on, the narrative flops around like a pregnant elephant. During the last half hour, the film could have ended at any of about twenty moments and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference.



Edward G. Robinson (and two pieces from his collection of Impressionist paintings, on loan to Warner Bros.) in Illegal (dir. Lewis Allen, 1955).

Ambitious DA accidentally sends wrong man to the chair (DeForest Kelley of Star Trek in a very small part) and switches to being a mouthpiece for criminals. Best part is the DVD commentary by star Nina Foch, now in her eighties, who remarks every few seconds on how stiff and dead everyone looks in the film, and how much better movies are now that technology has improved and we have learned the lessons of psychoanalysis.