1.26.2008

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.

12 comments:

Andrew said...

You know, this is weird, but when I saw the film in Santa Monica it was out of focus too. Is there something about this film that causes it to be consistently projected out of focus?

Ryan said...

I'm wondering that as well. I saw it in NYC and there were parts, though not as skewed as in Kasey's case, that were out of focus.

So, let me ask: best film of the year? Because I'd go so far as to say that this is the best film I've seen during the last 10 (granted, MADE during the last 10, too).

Ryan said...

Another question (and I think this has to do with what Kasey said about this film exceeding viewers' expectations):

Are there two brothers, Paul and Eli or just a case of two conflicting courses of what to do with your family's land?

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Too early still for me to decide whether I'd say it was the best film of 2007. I will say that of all the new films I saw last year, the only one that could give it a run at the moment is No Country for Old Men. I haven't yet gotten to see either The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (my God, it's been a year for long titles), and I'm intrigued by both of them.

Ten years? I'm pretty sure I wouldn't go that far, but I do have to admit that an example of a film within that time I'd consider "obviously" better doesn't come immediately to mind. Maybe Anchorman. Just kidding. Sort of.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Oh, Anderson has said in interviews that Paul and Eli are supposed to be actual brothers. Originally there was a different actor playing Eli, and then he got fired after Dano had already shot his scene as Paul, and Anderson decided to have Dano play Eli as well.

Ryan said...

True. I haven't seen either of those movies..er, either.

So i'll shut my trap. But it was damn good.

What did you think of the music?

On the note about the brothers, the alienation theme segues interestingly with the notion of twins, and even more chilling, the Borgesian "copy."

Providence said...

Kasey,

Do you take requests? I just watched "Panic in Needle Park" and thought it had an interesting affinity with this and No Country...but I'd value your take on it.

Patrick

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Patrick, I just put Panic in Needle Park at the top of my Netflix queue. Or second from top, because Assassination of Jesse James is now available, it seems.

Ryan said...

I'm interested in how Netflix has changed the viewing habits of erstwhile cinephiles.

I will add it to queue as well.

kyle said...

in lieu of actual commentary on this movie, which i saw saturday, just let me say:

1) There Will Be Blood
2) No Country For Old Men
3) Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

although i too have yet to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, although it is at the top of my own queue.

the music (actually, the sound as a whole) was fantastic, especially when contrasted with the silences after HW goes deaf.

Jasper Bernes said...

You know, I found the score to this film profoundly irritating (although I did like how HW, after his accident, seemed to mimic that weird chord--not sure if this is the correct term, I'm musically illiterate--that opens the film.

It's an excellent film, for sure. Is it really a better film than No Country? I'm not sure; it seemed flawed in similar ways, and I found the biblico-allegorical overlay fairly patronizing. This seems to be Anderson's blind spot. The best thing about it was the middle, those tracking shots with multiple moving elements. . .

Funny thing is: it's much closer to Cormac McCarthy's sensibility than the offering from the Coen Brothers.

Bryan said...

jasper:

you hated the score? i thought it was a strong effort by jonny greenwood. i actually downloaded it.

i thought the music was well executed and frighteningly minimalist.

i think this track in particular demonstrates greenwood's knack for developing a mood through the use of a few melancholy notes:

http://hypem.com/track/465735

then again, i am a radiohead nut.