Saturday, January 26, 2008

There will be non-epic

Upton Sinclair is a writer on the periphery of the periphery for me: I read and was duly horrified by The Jungle in high school; was a socialist but a best-seller in his day. His ethos -- a didactic, flat-footed Dreiser approach to Social Problems, if such a grisly thing is possible -- keeps him from canonicity. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, he wrote one book everyone remembers and which performed a great service, and was written as such; the good intentions shake like the branches of old elm trees.

Paul Thomas Anderson will never be associated with causes. To think of him performing a service (other than re-introducing the awesome Philip Baker Hall to casting agents) is enough to make me spit out the ice cube I'm chewing on. There Will Be Blood could use more didacticism. Conceived and shot like a the fever-dream of a doggedly sober man, it's so ascetic and apolitical that it could only have been made by a man who sees film as life. I haven't read Oil! and I understand Anderson adapted only the first few chapters, but damned if I can't believe that Sinclair wrote his novel as if it was The Wings of the Dove. His fluency with dollies and tracking shots belie the knock-kneed gait at which his films unfurl; he's the first director I know who's made three consecutive movies in which the events seem foreshortened yet attenuated. We come no closer to understanding Daniel Plainview's megalomania than his adopted son comes to thawing the monster's heart. Actually, Plainview isn't even that monstrous -- more like weird, which can't be the point (again, I haven't read the novel). For all Daniel Day-Lewis' considerable finesse -- the ease with which he moves in character mitigates our distance from Plainview -- this final heir of the Method tradition, accepted without hesitation as one of the immortals (his last movie was another Oscar nomination-loaded Noble Effort) , inhabits a movie without the insectival greed of Plainview himself. It's as if Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were exiled in George Stevens' Giant. Anderson aspires to Stevens' asexuality too, which is probably his idea of fairness: Stevens, recall, made oil derricks as sensuous as Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.

Also, I'm beginning to resent Anderson's politics of embarrassment. He can't resist filming a scene in which one or more characters perform an act of such abject mortification that it forces the audience to squirm for the actor, not with the character. Think of Philip Seymour Hoffman slapping his own head for making a pass at Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; or all of William H. Macy's scenes, for that matter. Or Adam Sandler fighting with Hoffman (him again) in Punch-Drunk Love. In a scene which may or may not be in the novel, Plainview and Paul Dano's preacher Eli confront one another for the last time. Since I don't get some of the bad press Dano's gotten -- his impassioned squeal and lack of girth work for the character -- I saw the possibilities latent in watching two such grossly mismatched opponents glower at each other (it helps that Day-Lewis has never looked so attractive, even when Plainview is disintegrating before us). I'm not sure what tone Anderson sought, but the scene has the intended effect: the audience, looking for a laugh, any laugh, guffaws at exactly the right moment after an act of rapid, predictable gruesomeness. Nothing is delivered, as Dylan once said. The scene floats, unmoored, with no relation to what we've learned; it's played and written as a sop to the audience. That's how it feels anyway.

It's weird reading these lazy reviews calling TWBB "epic" -- because it spans lots of years? it's shot in the desert? Anderson chose an "epic"-style font for his titles? This is a Noh drama, stylized yet minimalist. The audience can congratulate itself on having seen a "show," its prejudices about American history and the relationship between plutocracy and religious fundamentalism unchallenged; at least Richard Brooks' adaptation of Elmer Gantry tried. If ultimately it's not a very good movie, it's still a movie with a lot of very good things in it, helmed by a sensibility whose tics and obsessions are not getting more familiar as his resume lengthens.

11 comments:

Passion of the Weiss said...

Great work. This might be the best thing I've read on the film and the one that best captures Anderson's failure to really say anything when he had the ample opportunity considering the wide panorama of themes and the ability of his cast to implement that vision (or lack thereof.)

Like you said, it's a film with a lot of brilliance but not necessarily a brilliant film itself, too uncertain of itself, prone to long stretches that wander ambivalently. It may present itself as an epic, but when pressed to deliver on those intentions, PTA pulls a bait and switch, instead aiming for something a bit too minimal for all of its grandiose hopes. In that regard, I have to regard it as mildly disappointing, if not a still wholly entertaining picture.

Tal said...

I'm with Jeff, Alfred, this is a spectacular write-up, and probably the review I've read that best sums up the problems I had with the film. I would say more, but Jeff took care of that.

As a Boogie Nights fan, I respectfully disagree with you RE: Hoffman. You DO feel for the character, not the actor, because the part is so well-written. Hoffman is physically perfect for the role, but the reactions and delivery could be performed by almost anybody, the character is meaty and vivid enough to imagine minus any specific actor (just read the script for yourself, it's his best, which is why Nights is also his best film).

Alfred Soto said...

What a guy, that PTA. Hard Eight, his most satisfying film, uses the kind of form (chamber drama) to which he's least congenial. I can't quite recommend Boogie Nights; it seems emptier each time I see it. Mark Wahlberg, still unformed as an actor, is too squishy for drama, but just right for PTA's stoner vibe. This may be the most amiable of Scorsese-influenced films.

Passion of the Weiss said...

I really need to see Hard 8.

blackmail is my life said...

I'm about halfway through the book, and I think PTA did a pretty great job of translating Sinclair's essence. Visually, I thought it combined Fitzcarraldo with Days of Heaven. You could do a lot worse.

Alfred Soto said...

It can't do much worse than Fitzcarraldo, which employs a visual style in search of a vision.

M said...

"most amiable of Scorsese-derived films" = OTMFM. That amiability is a lot of why it's such a recurrent DVD (based on eyeballing other people's collections it's surely one of the steadiest-selling DVDs ever; I'm also thinking of stoner-fave movies like Pulp Fiction), in a way the big Scorsese films don't match, or particularly want to. (I wonder where, or if, Scarface fits here, though De Palma can hardly be said to be of Scorsese's school; his runs parallel to it.)

blackmail is my life said...

Heh. I wish I made a movie as bad as Fitzcarraldo. LOL.

kiss out the jams said...

I'm glad you put the film in focus so that I can see that one of the reasons I think I loved it is that it made no aspirations whatsoever to be anything but a film...it's weirdly interesting to me that Daniel Plainview was conceived as a corrupt individual without any political (or sexual) meanings. I've never really seen anything like that...you call it the "fever dream of a doggedly sober man," which is right on the money. It may be the longest film I've ever seen that resists outside interpretation (awesome as it would be, fuck all this "was Eli actually Paul" talk).

blackmail is my life said...

Since I'm reading the book I'll say this and be done: if he chose not to neuter the politics, this movie would be much more like Metropolis than either of the two movies I mentioned upthread.

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