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.
Labels: Paul Thomas Anderson