Now on DVD: “El Cid” (Mann, USA, 1961)
For a fan of Anthony Mann, but no scholar on the auteur, the move of the great American filmmaker from noirs through Westerns to something as utterly massive as El Cid (1961) is a bit hard to believe. Both Mann’s best noirs, like Reign of Terror (1949) and Raw Deal (1948), as well as his amazing revisionist Westerns, many starring James Stewart, like Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953), use expressionism large and small to open up interior states to the outside world. Whether this is in the German-style expressionism of John Alton’s noir photography—expressing paranoia and dislocation—or the more subtle expressionism of landscape that characterized the psychic trauma the director’s Westerns focused on, Mann carefully calibrated his cinematic world to the psychology of his protagonists. No matter the scope of the visuals, Mann made small films tuned to singular people.
Yet here is El Cid, a swords-and-sandals epic typical of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Cinemascope (here actually 70mm Super Technirama), international location shooting, and massive budgets tried to upstage the popular success of television. It is the story of a legendary Spanish knight who kept a splintering Spain together and repelled invading Muslim armies, sacrificing himself for the Christian nation. How could Mann find expression in this framework, swamped by the showmanship of the era? The answer is that he decided to tell not the psychology of his story visually, but rather visually tell the story itself. El Cid could nearly be a silent film. Abhorring the pageantry that so often accompanies such super-productions, Mann’s artistic crew—Robert Krasker’s photography, Veniero Colasanti and John Moore’s production design and costumes, and Maciek Piotrowski’s paintings and murals—create one of the most visually rich, tactile, voluptuous, and three-dimensional period piece ever recorded on film.
El Cid’s surface beauty is insurmountable, one built piece by piece from the actors up, a predecessor to the world-creation efforts of George Lucas and Peter Jackson. It is a style of colossal filmmaking centered on thinking of and then artistically executing every possible detail on screen in order to create a fantasy world that moves less like a plot and more like fate. It is moving from psychology-based storytelling to mythic storytelling, the move of the film not dynamic but an inevitability, calibrated and expressed by the production itself.
This is why Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren are the leads, actors whose cheekbones and sternness say everything about their characters, making their talks together practically superfluous. There are sacrifices to be made in such a style. The lovely Geneviève Page expresses a subtlety of character in her princess (and then queen) of Spain, a mix of motivations, desires, and malice, that the film’s scope cannot possibly focus on. Instead of subtlety, details explode in the beautiful, saturated color. Every detail in this film helps tell the audience the essence of each character, the implication of each action. In such a film humanity is played down for fantastic broad gestures, and the dialog becomes mere dressing to this materialist feast.
Even if motivations, psychology, and events themselves seem unclear—as is often the case in El Cid—who feels what and how we should feel for them is never in any doubt. Anthony Mann has still managed to extrapolate interior states to the exterior, only this time he is working not on the individual, psychological scale, but in the broad strokes of the mythic.
Design speaking for character, the confines of the arch, the pliable grace of the staircase. Sophia Loren, upon hearing her love, Charlton Heston, is a traitor.
Pictorial plot, the weight of the film’s inevitable history. The king, dead.
Moral judgment and historical fate in the darkness. A mission of assassination.
Sharp, insistent acting when necessary. The new king (John Fraser) forced by Heston to swear to God.
Moral weight pushing historical imperatives in one direction, the personal and the familial in the other. Heston, Loren, and their children, each in their own corner.
Splendor and isolation. The new king, alone with his sister (Geneviève Page).
Isolation changes to fruitfulness. The new king, given a new chance by the crown won by Heston.
Baroque production; history and appearance dwarfing the individual. Loren observes Heston’s last reassurance to his troops.
Chiaroscuro and graphic abstraction. The Islamic army at night march.
Gold, red, purple, and flesh. Heston on his deathbed.
Voluptuousness of texture, color, and shadow. Heston embraces the new king, who has been inspired by his example.
Link of the day
Darren Hughes’ website Long Pauses has for many years been a fresh resource for criticism of art house and classic films. It is always welcome when an astute writer branches out, and along with a beautiful redesign of his blog, Hughes’ recent post, The Wire, “Moral Midgetry”, on HBO’s amazing show The Wire, shows how criticism sharpened on the cinema can open up television in similar ways. Darren’s post is nice and concise, and I don’t want to take too much away from it, so instead I’ll pull the quote from French director Chris Marker that opens the entry:
"But to tell the truth, I no longer watch many films, only those by friends or curiosities that an American acquaintance tapes for me on TCM… . I feed my hunger for fiction with what is by far the most accomplished source: those terrific American TV series like Deadwood, Firefly, or The Wire … There is a knowledge in them, a sense of story and economy, of ellipses, a science of framing and of cutting, a dramaturgy, and an acting style that has no equal anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood.”
— Chris Marker
At the cinematheque: “Red Handkerchief” (Masuda, Japan, 1964)
Above: Ishihara Yujiro. © 1964 Nikkatsu Corporation
Masuda’s other film I saw in the Japan Society’s fascinating series NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema, 1967’s Like a Shooting Star, exhibited a level of promising competency and craft with the camera and editing, as well as strong architectural and stylistic attributes, but much of this was squandered by delusions of gravity and seriousness beyond the reaches of its silly plot. Red Handkerchief, released 3 years earlier, exhibits similar grandiose sentiments in a B-level plot, Nikkatsu’s A-level budget and star clearly at odds with a formula more suited for Seijun Suzuki. Ishihara Yujiro plays a cop who shot and killed a suspect who grabbed the gun of his partner and started firing wildly. Despite the life-threatening nature of this incident, Ishihara and his partner are disgraced by the “accidental” death of an “innocent” civilian. This is compounded, as it must be since the moral wrong of the situation seems non-existent, by the fact that Ishihara had just met and presumably fell for the victim’s daughter hours before the gunfight. Outside the metal factory she works at, the girl curses Ishihara where he stands, and Masuda cuts to the thundering clap and fire of the metal factory. The ex-cop retreats to the mountains to dwell on his moral banishment, while unbeknownst to him, his ex-partner becomes suspiciously rich and marries the fatherless factory girl.
A typical story of moral wrongs righted and petty revenge, maybe. And given too much consideration and not enough emotional depth for that consideration, that too Masuda’s film suffers. But even more than Like a Shooting Star, Red Handkerchief is a stylistic triumph. Not knowing the film’s date, I assumed it must have been the late 1960s, somewhere around The Conformist, as I had never seen such self-aware visuals, lessons from Hollywood’s 1950’s Technicolor films and 1940’s noir and applying so knowingly, creatively. This is in terms of a whole range of the production, from the photography by Mine Shigeyoshi (who worked mainly with Suzuki), to Masuda’s deliberate close-ups, camera movement, and rich, luxurious production design. In terms of look, the film often resembles Jean-Pierre Melville’s color films, but without their distance and coolness. They are both informed by the same kind of careful study and inspired application of Hollywood genre stylistics. But Masuda can go beyond this, the film is not just a beautiful looking pastiche of style. To begin with, in 1964 I cannot think of another film that not just looked quite like this, but also that moved with such sophistication and contemporariness in craft.
To give an example, when Ishihara leaves the police station to find the suspect’s daughter, we get a shot of him leaving the interrogation room. I believe the next shot (I could be mistaken in the transition, but that’s not the point) is of a lower-middle class back alleyway, an establishing shot of the alley in which the two will meet. The difference is that the shot starts out as empty space, on the cut there is the alley and the camera slowly tracks backwards with nothing in the frame. A beat or two later Ishihara enters, walking away from the backing-up camera. I have no idea when such an autonomous camera movement was so consciously used so early, to my knowledge Antonioni and Godard were just getting there around this time themselves. The girl runs out of her house to meet the tofu man and Masuda shows us her running in tight medium close-ups shot against a black background, clearly abstractly shot in the studio, rather than the location the previous shot, and the rest of the scene, play out in. Such a style, close to impressionism, but also very aware of itself, should not be ignored. An indication of this film’s A-level budget, along with Masuda’s unusually focused approach, would be the sequence where Ishihara is living in exile, helping build a dam in the snowy mountains. The sequence includes a great deal of wonderful location footage, almost documentary like, including a scene driving down the mountain when Ishihara and a curious detective converse. Masuda shoots a banal conversation in the open air, on the back of a truck, in the mountains, and in the middle of falling snow! Yet Masuda isn’t quite going for pictorialism, nor is he just going for a deeply stylized world. I sense an uncertainty in him, an attraction to these potent aesthetics but an uncertainty on why he is including them in his film, other than their inherent sense of cinematic interest. It may in fact be part of Masuda’s desire to invest a flat plot with seriousness, as the direction and the visuals connote care, consideration, and beauty, yet are not sufficiently unified or directed to invest this flatness with that seriousness. Masuda seems to have the skill enough to imply, but not enough to evoke. I would love to see a work of his that owned up to the thinness of the material and used the director’s obvious talent as a filmmaker (though not necessarily as a great one) to really jazz it up, break it free and give it something special.
Coming soon to DVD
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Of the many excellent releases coming soon from the Criterion Collection, I’m particularly excited about these upcoming special editions. Allen Baron’s rugged, spare post-noir Blast of Silence (1961) is a tiny, roughly hewn film that bleeds despair from every seedy minute of its terse runtime. To contrast the loneliness and sorrow of that films, one can take a dose of a new boxset on the Eclipse label, Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies, which include Tokyo Chorus (1931), I Was Born But… (1932), which is one of my all time favorite films, and Passing Fancy (1933). I welcome the chance to finally see more from Ozu’s earlier period, which can be quite different from his more well-known 1940s and 1950s work, but just as good.
Academy Award nominations are in…
Image series: shot/reverse shot in “El Cid” (USA, 1961)
From El Cid; directed by Anthony Mann; editing by Robert Lawrence; cinematography by Robert Krasker:
…and nearly three hours later, its reverse.
Poster of the week
In honor of its recent screening at the Sundance Film Festival, here is, to my mind, the finest poster released in 2007. It is the poster for Michael Haneke’s Funny Games U.S., a shot-for-shot remake of his own Funny Games, made in Austria in 1997. Excuse the size, but the details and tagline are too good to miss.
Link of the day
The new trailer for Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. Click the image above to select viewing resolution.
Now in theaters: “Still Life” (Jia, China)
Above: Han Sangming gazes at the immensity of the gorge in Still Life.
With not a little irony Jia Zhangke staged the drama of his film The World amongst replicas of famous buildings from around the globe, and the contrast between the World Park’s simulated setting and the neo-realism of Jia shooting his latest film Still Life around the actual Three Gorges Dam is stunning. It is a fresh, relieving change of course from the previous film’s overwrought, overburdened allegorical setting. With a plot staged much as an excuse simply for cinematographer Yu Lik-wai to photograph the region before it is submerged in water (throughout the film government crews are constantly spray-painting indicators of the next stage in water level around the homes and neighborhood in the film), Still Life acts first and foremost as a pictorial recording of a landscape in tremendous transition. Yu’s digital camera captures both the dilapidated and soon-to-be abandoned urban dwellings surrounding the edge of the water, as well as longer views of the valleys and vistas of the area, intrinsically seeing them as both mesmerizingly tangled, horrendously interwoven landscapes (the large buildings weave amongst the hills that rise and fall around the river, making for an uncanny combination of natural and man-made landscape), as well as “natural” burial grounds for an already obliterated area—the river that is constantly in the center of the film’s compositions is actually the resting place for a centuries-old town.
The film starts and ends with Han Sangming, who plays a working-class man from the Shanxi region traveling to the Three Gorges area to find his wife and daughter who abandoned him 16 years ago. The address Han brings with him was from before the construction started, and the neighborhood his family used to live in is now several meters under water, giving Han problems tracking them down. Bookended by Han’s story is that of Hong Shen (Jia’s usual actress, Zhao Tao) who also is traveling to the Dam site to find a missing spouse, except that her and her husband are middle-class professionals. While both her husband and Han’s wife seem to have left their spouses for the financial opportunities (and perhaps freedom) afforded around the Dam’s construction, Han’s wife ekes out an existence working on a boat for food whereas Hong’s husband is a prominent businessman who entertains clients visiting the area. Both plots—as well as their similarities—are quite threadbare, and just as an immense landscape painting will have a tiny human figure in the corner to root the physical setting for a human observer or give it an excuse for existence, so too does Still Life use Han and Hong as wandering vector points, from which the camera can see past them to the tumultuous construction area, its past (the old natural vistas, the still-standing cities) and its present (the submerged cities, demolition crews, and the influx of new workers and inhabitants).
With both characters searching for elements of their past—Han so that he can recapture it and make up for lost time, and Hong so that she can move on to a new future—Jia uses his simple stories to align two different attitudes with the present-day documenting of this particular stage in the dam’s construction. Stuck recording the tremulous present status of the construction, Jia uses these two human stories to express both the past that has been lost by the project, one that is only suggestible (as in the address of Han’s wife, written down on the wrapped of an outdated cigarette brand) and no longer capturable by camera, as well as a desire or at least a recognition that after this there will be a future, something new and unforeseeable. That most of Still Life is devoted to Han’s loss rather than Hong’s new start suggests how Jia views the effects of the Three Gorges Dam.
Yu’s photography is as always beautiful, capturing in smudgy, impressionistic pans and hugely deep-focus tableaux the immensity of the valley, the ever-present oppression of the murky haze that hangs over the area, the clammy bodies of the migrant workers both in action and in repose, and the blotchy, out-of-place existence of large buildings huddled against the receding walls of the gorge. It is no surprise that the film project that initiated Still Life and makes for its companion piece (though I have yet to see it) is a documentary on a painter working in the region. The film itself is essentially a documentary of a very real area that is now gone and only partly unrecognizable (an official voice-over on a river ferry says that the next stage in water raising will take place in May 2006, so much of where the film is set truly no longer exists) and one on fictional characters whose existence and problems exist in the past, as unseen as their open futures lay at the end of the film.
The irony of the English title of the film is that while both Han and Hong’s lives are very much in a kind of paralysis, as they fitfully search to either reunite with the past or break with it for a new beginning, their travels to the region, wanderings around the valley, and constant activity (Han takes a job as a demotions man as he waits for his wife to show up, and Hong visits all of her husband’s haunts around town) are anything but still. For all of its use of the characters as motivators and human roots for shooting around the area of the dam, and for the film’s own stilled aesthetic of silences, pauses, plaintive shots of the surroundings, and dead time, Still Life is very much about the tumult, movement, and bodies inside this picture. It is filled with arriving people searching for their pasts, current inhabitants driven out of their homes, workers, meals, the constantly rising water, the constant demolishing of old buildings, and the connections between all these things, the new bridges, the back and forth rhythm of the ferries, and, most whimsically and mysteriously, the flying speck of light (a UFO?) that both Han and Hong spy and whose arrival connects their stories. The dialectic between these stilled landscape shots and the movement inside the film itself is reflected in a sublime visual motif used here and there in the film, which has Han or Hong stand within a building that looks out towards the river and the valley, so that the window they look out of literally frames the landscape like a picture, as if the characters hardly notice what’s going on around them amongst their preoccupation with their lives.
In fact, the only real “still lives” in the film are the charming though ambiguous moments when an object in a scene will unexpectedly be held in a shot and a small title comes up. For example, when Hong is searching for the location of her husband she goes breaks open his locker at his old factory job and looks through the items, the camera dollies in to a package of tea, and the name of the object fades into the corner of the screen. Jia is as interested in (literally) the big picture as he is in these small object details that make up the exchange-based commerce around the area, catching in the frame arbitrary commodities like liquor, cigarettes, candy and money. The latter is referenced several times in the film, often with a sad amusement, as in the scene when Han gets roped into a magic act upon his arrival in the area. The magician turns blank paper first into Euros and then into Chinese money, and finally has the audacity to charge the clearly impoverished workers for seeing him magically create wealth. Perhaps most poignant of all is the confluence of these objects with the landscape, seen is the way the migrant workers exchange greetings by showing off pictures of famed landmarks from home through their etched representations on Chinese currency (Han then compares the bill to the real thing later in the film!). It turns out that Still Life is centered not only the landscape or in the commercial details of China’s burgeoning capitalism or just on the people but rather on all these things, on the changes occurring, the lives effected, the detritus of life and of the area. For all its surface simplicity, the film is immense in what it records, in the changes it documents, in its deadpan humor and whimsy (including a half-built structure that turns into a rocket ship, references to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and particularly lovely concluding shots), in its the reticent sorrow, and in its openness for a future after the Three Gorges Dam.
Charlton Heston is an axiom
"Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instil beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the sombre phosphoresence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curvce of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso - this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima mon amour or Citizen Kane, films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”
-Michel Mourlet, “In Defense of Violence” (‘Apologie de la violence, Cahiers du Cinema 107, May 1960), translated by David Wilson. From Cahiers du Cinéma, The 1960s: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, Jim Hillier, ed.
A tease for more text (original) and images (quoted) from Anthony Mann’s 1961 film El Cid, soon to be released on DVD.
Link of the day
Above: Ventura (right) amongst the shadows, peeling walls, and a rare friend in Colossal Youth.
David Pratt-Robson’s website videoarcadia is full with varied, scholarly, passionate, and deeply insightful cinematic analysis. One particular post of his I have enjoyed recently is Approaching Colossal Youth, an article on Pedro Costa’s utterly remarkable Portuguese film from 2006. David, contributing to Harry Tuttle’s Contemplative Cinema Blogathon, looks at the film from many angles, among them Costa’s paradoxical use of sound design, influence from John Ford, and the film’s links to The Odyssey. Here is a selection:
"What’s less commented upon is his sound design: fluid, lush, and busy, with the sounds of vehicles and people talking, as well as bulldozers tearing down the neighborhood (though much less in Colossal Youth); all the strands flow together so that nothing in particular can be heard, even while every pixel can be easily discerned (whereas the spots in film, seen up-close, seem to blink and move like fireflies, never sticking in place). Whereas the visuals in Colossal Youth seems fixed in every possible way, like images of dead men talking in a dead world, the soundtrack is always in flux, completely lively: whatever sense of bareness is raised by the views of lonely men talking against white-washed homogenized spaces is negated entirely by the alternate sense of a close community, never seen, just behind these walls."
Image series: faith, love, and goodbyes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (UK, 1938)
From The Lady Vanishes; featuring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cinematography by Jack Cox:
The Lady Vanishes is currently available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Mark the date: essential film screenings in New York, Jan. 18 & Jan. 19
Above: The behind the scenes mystery of Wordly Desires (2005).
Bookended by screenings of two masterpieces by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2007’s best film, Syndromes and a Century, and 2004’s equally great Tropical Malady), is a rare collection of the Thai director’s experimental films and shorts to be shown at the Anthology Film Archive this weekend.
Program One includes The Anthem (2006), Windows (1999), Malee and the Boy (1999), Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (1995), and Thirdworld (1997). Program Two also contains The Anthem, as well as Ghosts of Asia (2005), Luminous People (2006), My Mother’s Garden (2007), and World’y Desires (2005).
This is an unexpected chance to catch up with the rarer of the gentle, experimental visions by this most wonderful of directors. They are films that have been shown in galleries or as part of omnibuses but otherwise are quite difficult to see. Nathan Lee gives a great introduction to these shorts for the Village Voice, to be found here.
Program One screens on Jan. 18 at 7:00pm (filmmaker in person) & Jan. 19 at 4:45pm.
Program Two screens on Jan. 18 at 9:30pm (filmmaker in person) & Jan 19 at 7:00pm.
Now in theaters: “There Will Be Blood” (Anderson, USA)
Above: a regular family business: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), with son H.W. (Dillon Freasier).
For one, let’s not think that There Will Be Blood is a departure for Paul Thomas Anderson, who loosely adapted the film from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. It was Anderson’s whimsical, lovely Punch-Drunk Love (2002) that left behind the director’s admirable, but portentous megagoliath films Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). His last film turned towards crafting an almost expressionistic mise-en-scène, one built around a character, a world-view, a feeling, and not a smearingly glossy, over-broad narrative of grandiose linkage and showoffery. That most strange of Adam Sandler vehicles has as unified—and off-kilter—a film world as that of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood: a style of cinema that finds its natural place as it tries to become accustomed to the eccentricities of the most eccentric of characters.
And Daniel Day-Lewis’ early 20th century oil prospector Daniel Plainview is indeed eccentric, showcasing a proclivity to absurd obstinacy and capitalistic tenacity, and blessed with a gift of gab that, when tied to the cut-throat business of the booming oil trade, soon reveals in the character a merciless hatred for the people around him. He even says as much, in a moment of rare, though clearly relished, frankness; Day-Lewis practically lavishly smacking his lips as he curls his words of condemnation and isolation to his nighttime confessor. But to get back to Anderson, with the inestimable help of regular collaborator Robert Elswtt’s naturalistic photography and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s score (part Jon Brion’s avant-garde percussive work for Punch-Drunk Love, part the Penderecki/Ligeti of Kubrick), piece by piece he constructs his film around this oddity, this character of Plainsview.
It is noticeably an incomplete view of the man, as if from a book not with missing pages, as it is not that There Will Be Blood suggests other, off-camera parts of the man’s life and character, but rather it is a view of a book where the edges of the page leave off. It is artistically incomplete and fragmented, ideas gathered about this man’s dogged lifestyle and thoughts, his cruel, passionate character, but never truly brought together, strands connected, everything fleshed out to a reassuring depth of artistic perception. Anderson’s film is like a vision of notes he took on a Great American Epic, ideas and angles introduced but rarely followed through. Instead, we get a narrative that skips at will from the initially days of Plainview’s silver prospecting to the accidental adoption of another miner’s son, who takes Plainview’s own name under the initials H.W. (Dillon Freasier). The film finally moves elliptically to the older man’s fateful arrival at the promising field near the podunk town of New Boston. Here we seem to get at the meat of the film, Plainsview convincing a town that exploiting their bountiful oil will bring modernization and wealth all around, a promise that also suggests an inevitable clash with locals. The oilman’s nemesis takes the form of a young Christian minister, Eli (Paul Dano), who claims to be a healer and seems to threaten to turn the town, and potentially the employees of Plainview’s oil rig, towards a fevered fundamentalism.
We see snatches in Anderson’s sprawl: Plainview’s early injury in his mine and his wherewithal dragging his mangled leg along with his silver find to the assayer; brief moments of love, or at least care, between Daniel and his adapted son; the gab with which he wraps up an oil deal with a small town assembly; stuttered but never complete confrontations with Eli, and so on. It is not that the film moves at a montage-like clip as does much of Anderson’s two mega movies, but rather the narrative touches down at telling details, small and large, to suggest something of Daniel Plainview and the world he represents, and then moves on to another idea, rarely finishing the first.
Plainview is, like The Shining’s Jack Torrence, to which the film implicitly compares him, is as much a monster as a mystery. A man in a quintessentially American position, here the capitalistic prospector and entrepreneur (Torrence, the trouble writer, middle-class family man), he gradually turns monstrous—or, perhaps, reveals his monstrosity—piece by piece as he voraciously uses his passion to better his position. I do not wish I had take him at his own word, but Anderson does ets him explain himself in terms that leave little ambiguity to the character, his obsessive need to find a method to get the man out in the middle of nowhere, near only a representative and minimal amount of humanity. It is this mysterious drive and this mysterious misanthropy that is the center of There Will Be Blood’s appeal, and Anderson’s inadequate plotting often helps underline the gulf of understanding between Plainview and the audience. He seems to have a bit of everything in him, but with not enough given to us to explain him thoroughly.
Jonny Greenwood’s atonal score and Elswit’s long takes, many using tracking shots or the Steadicam and limited camera coverage, clearly present Plainview with an almost total strangeness. There seems little dissonant stylization as there was to Sandler’s idiosyncratic relationships in Punch-Drunk, or the slick, omniscient/omnipresent direction of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Shot principally on location, There Will Be Blood views its subject with a fascination but also a kind of restraint or naturalism (a few shots early on, and a later, amazing confrontation at a restaurant, are covered like a Hou Hsiou-hsien film) that lets Day-Lewis’ rich acting dig itself into its own hole. Anderson holds back in muffled awe at the potential, growth, and finally the blossoming of Plainview’s warped character, of the mania that transforms from capitalistic fervor to psychopatholical in minute, elliptical shifts in Day-Lewis. As the film’s skittish plot and ideas fail to gel, it is only the presence of Plainview that holds the film together, and Day-Lewis’ fierceness makes up for, and helps cover, much of the film’s gaps and immaturities.
The perhaps inadvertent side effect of There Will Be Blood’s problems is that the discrepancy between the film’s knowing, considered distance and the oddness of its subject provides a gross dissonance in the film’s tone, producing a remarkable, ungainly strangeness, an inability to nail down purpose, meaning, and direction in even the most over-planned moments, the most over-scripted dialogs. Anderson has his plans, that’s for sure. The film has a propensity to hit its Biblical notes, its Kubrick influences, its doublings (brothers and twins, fathers and sons, mostly) as hard as it possibly can. Yet the film’s strangeness is so potent that the film escapes the aims of these over-determined structures, which seek to close the film off and seal in particular meanings, explanations.
The sprawl of the film, its somewhat ragged and unusual structure (perhaps sloppy), are where the film’s crevasses of mystery are to be found. In Day-Lewis’ swallowing of his ur-American comicbook villain from Gangs of New York into a more psychological and thereby more of-this-world, believably unhinged psychosis, and in the film’s avoidance or, as the case may be, eccentric versions of conventional or assumed plot high points are the film’s most powerful, strange visions. Eli and Daniel’s confrontations, breaks and re-unions between father and son, and inevitable oilrig disasters are not done as one would assume, an indicator both of Anderson not seeing his ideas through to the end, as well as his ability to idiosyncratically divert the film away from convention. How else to explain the turgid father-son concluding scene of the film juxtaposed against the brilliant grotesqueness of the final bowling alley showdown?
We can still see the old Anderson in There Will Be Blood, determined to control the film and the meaning, the experience itself, but thankfully we are blessed with the artist who grew into someone who could direct—believe it or not—the most plausible and lovely Adam Sandler romance ever to be made. We find someone embracing the strange; dedicating not just a film to it, but letting it, for the most, and brilliant, part letting that strangeness move and alter the film in frustrating, tantalizing, and often unknown and unknowable ways. The pleasure, then is to see this film, perhaps yet another re-invention of Citizen Kane (crossed with The Shining), find in its look at an American passion for moneymaking and adventure, its somewhat less fleshed out attraction to the security of the church, and both institutions bonds with human relationships and building foundations for tomorrow, a new weirdness, a freshness that finds in the these warped American archetypes evil itself.