Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Roger Leatherwood on There Will be Blood

***A graduate of the Moving Image Preservation Program at UCLA, Roger Leatherwood is the author of the excellent Mondo Cine blog. I'm happy to have him on board with this 2009 piece comparing There Will be Blood to The Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men for inclusion in our Blogathon. I like Roger's blog a lot and I admire how he brings in his own experiences in the film industry into his writing on classic and new films.***

There Will be Blood
Roger Leatherwood

It's been a year since Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood was released, and it seems it's aging well in only that short a time. It's nice to be so far from of the maelstrom of the hype. I now find it much better than the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, the other end-of-year "western" that it was so aggressively compared to during awards season and found wanting.

"Blood" is appearing on the UK best-of-the-year lists since they got it in early in 2008 - and I've revisited it recently. I think it's fairly brilliant, more so than I thought the first time (my experience was unique - because it was close to 3 hours and I worked at a theatre where it played, I ended up seeing it in sequential 30-minute segments, which only emphasized the (perhaps) intentionally baroque tonal shifts as the plot lumbered along, not least of which was the bowling alley non-ending. (Or is it?)).

12 months later the difficulty with that ending as well as the hate heaped on the soundtrack seems so completely misplaced. Jonny Greenwood's electronic (but not atonal) foreboding (but not industrial) underscore is as appropriate and conservative as "Atmospheres" seems during the final trip in "2001" nowadays.

By contrast, No Country For Old Men in retrospect seems only ultimately to be about a haircut, and a couple of shots that they seemed to have left out in an effort to make us fume about the ending... or lack thereof. I haven't read the original book, but it now seems obvious that Josh Brolin's character got away with the money - the scene in the hotel room and the open grate isn't about something so mundane as who is or isn't behind what door, or whether evil is everywhere or nowhere... it's trying to tell us that Chirgurh hasn't found all the cash. Moss still has it, and that shot of him upside down "dead" on the carpet isn't Josh Brolin. It's another guy in his place - he bought 2 shirts. Oops, I guess I probably should have had a spoiler warning on this.

(But maybe I'm reading too much into what's just bad shot composition, or the perverse lack of a CU when he's laying on the slab in the morgue (as Jones tries to recognize him). It reminds me all of the meta-excitement around the ending shot of Jagged Edge back in 1985 - remind me to tell you that story sometime. And why else add 3 codas that seem to be just character beats, outside the narrative. The Coens usually know better.)

All in a row, "Blood" unfurls with a level assuredness we don't associate with Anderson. While he ultimately resorts to various baroque convulsions of plot, they don't seem unmotivated, just unexpected; his themes are judiciously and deliciously fingered, and simmer in a measured way he wouldn't have pulled off if he didn't construct this as such an arid and linear setpiece and have Daniel Day-Lewis to tease every nuance from an otherwise hidden subtext. (I half-think the film would have worked as well as a 95-minute thriller.) There's a thousand minuscule decisions that reinforce rather than confound its relentless progression. It's ridiculous and unnecessary to ask why he does what he does. It's too enjoyable and fated to doubt.

And as for the ending, I love when Sunday/Dano returns, looking the same age (only now completely different). They needed each other and both fell to ruin out of each other's influence. The meat, the repeating of lines, the bowling pins and the water/blood/oil/milkshake merged metaphor all give the film a physicality that, after Plainview's intangible drift away from his own salvation, grounds it in our own mortal world.

I guess I should have had a spoiler warning on that as well. The film's apparent sparseness, love for long takes and quiet mise-en-scene fooled some observers into invoking Kubrick (right down to the last-act mannerism). But Anderson, as in Boogie Nights, even in Magnolia and his early Hard Eight (with its absent exposition), is primarily concerned with family and teasing out the ramifications of an extended - or absent - one.

Anderson is really a sentimentalist. And his trust in letting the small details carry the weight of the story reveals him to be less arrogant, more curious, and increasingly more masterful than he has revealed ever before.

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