In architecture school, the worst criticism a student can receive is an extended silence broken by the comment — “Well, I like the font you used.”
That’s a snarky way to begin. There will be Blood is hardly that bad. Even if it were that bad surely it would be bad in a way that is worthy of serious discussion.
Anything Paul Thomas Anderson does is worthy of discussion. And that font is amazing, a real old fashioned title card on a black background, separated from the rest of the film by cuts. Without Saul Bass, it’s the best way left to do opening titles. Believe me, I walked out of the theatre wanting to join the TWBB cool kids fan club. I walked out knowing I’d committed to writing a review and having no idea what to say. Should you bluff and write an appreciation of Magnolia, nine years on? Do you describe There will be Blood as a stylistic departure, the oily murky images, the stilled camera, the lack of an ensemble? All of these elements are very assured, and Anderson is a greater director in my estimation after this film than he was before. And yet I can’t say that I liked it much or that I would want to see it again.
Do you attempt to describe the “amazing” performance of Daniel Day-Lewis (the adjectives available to describe film acting seem amazingly inadequate)? In spite of all the emotional and physical fury in the performance, there is no moment as devastating as that hard won grin which closes Magnolia. In the midst of this film about male rage, there is nothing as unforgettably disturbing as Adam Sandler smashing a plate glass window in Punch Drunk Love. I reckon Magnolia had at least five performances as good as Day-Lewis’, a specious comparison I know. There will be Blood is a very different sort of film, but none of the performances in Magnolia extinguished the oxygen of the other players the way Daniel Day-Lewis does. I think the way he lays waste to everything else in the film is basically the point and is the reason why it is an interesting and groundbreaking piece of film acting, but I can’t say that I found a single instant of it emotionally engaging.
Should you talk about the film as a piece of strange Americana, instantly anachronistic? I felt gut-punched leaving the theatre, but in aid of nothing. That’s why you’re here. To help me unpack, as they say, my reaction.
OK. But you know damn well that films don’t have to be “emotionally engaging,”they don’t have to be “in aid of” anything. Who cares that there’s no scenery left for the bit players to chew on?
But people are out there comparing There will be Blood to Citizen Kane, at least thematically. Yeah, Kane probes the emptiness of a peculiarly American species of ambition, but that’s not why it is consistently named the greatest film of all time. Kane leaves room for wit, for the melodrama and sentimentality which comes naturally to the movies. Welles has all the time in the world; time to revolutionize film grammar and time for Joseph Cotten to request a smuggled cigar, and for Kane’s butler to say “yes and noo…” I could see Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons or McCabe and Mrs. Miller or the Godfather II anytime. I think this film was such a conscious (and healthy) departure for Anderson and that he had such ambitions for this film as an American Masterpiece that he forgot that there should always be time for exuberance and humour, both of which he is really good at. Maybe he let Daniel Day-Lewis have all the fun. If the film fails, it fails in the most honourable and interesting way possible.
Why are certain people falling for it so hard then?
I avoided all reviews, plot, synopses and interviews prior to seeing the film (if moviegoing these days involves paying $15.50 to sit in a suburban theatre, then viewers should at least steal for themselves the luxury of their own personal reaction). Since then I have gorged on a free buffet of mostly rave reviews, many of them vaguely describing a probing of the origins of ‘the dark heart of America’ or somesuch. The more belligerent ones take the classic pretentious film student’s pose than anyone who doesn’t love the film is a hopelessly conventional troglodyte weaned on sitcoms and reality TV. To me this sort of reaction says a lot about the “State of Things” as Wim Wenders might say.
What does it suggest?
That lovers of cinema understandably crave masterpieces and auteurs. I sure do. Who wouldn’t be thrilled by a film with big themes, kickass gothic font, a wordless opening sequence adapted from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a brilliantly misguided ending, all shot in a palette of grays, browns and blacks? Who doesn’t yearn for an “independent” film which actually digests its cinematic references; a film without 1960s music or loveably quirky characters? How awesome would that shadow There will be Blood be? Imagine a film about the history of California, skillfully weaving the themes of unbridled capitalism and evangelism, set between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. That is precisely the sort of film we need now, not for any politically resonant reasons, but because it seems like the sort of film we who love cinema most miss seeing. Paul Thomas Anderson would be the man to direct it, too.
I don’t precisely understand why you didn’t like it.
I’m not sure I do. It gets into the question of how we evaluate film. Is a good film one we wish to see again? Is it one we remember years later? Is it one with some vague usefulness? I have no idea, except that you’re right that a great film doesn’t owe anybody anything. If There will be Blood were a building it would be a late 1960s brutalist, off form concrete shopping centre on the border of a gentrifying urban neighbourhood. Such an edifice is undeniably interesting, original, solid, uncompromising, strange, uncomfortable, richer than anything that could possibly replace it and simultaneously disliked by almost everybody. Even an aficionado can’t really say whether he likes it. Once senses the wrecking ball just around the corner.
My reaction to There will be Blood is anything but evangelical. I hope that people love it, even though I didn’t, and I hope one day to join them in loving it. I’m thrilled that it exists. An America in which films like this can be made must be a pretty damn great country, and PTA is a PDG director.