Friday, March 7, 2008
There Will Be Backlash
(Note: Since this post continues getting comments, I'm moving it out of the archives and back on the main page. Thanks to all for their thoughts!....)
With the Oscars soon upon us, the attacks against one of the main contenders, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, have cranked up like a derrick. More specifically, critics have been zeroing in on Daniel Day-Lewis' anticipated Best Actor-winning performance as if it and the film were inseparable -- because they are. There Will Be Blood is an unusual hybrid, an epic with a singular focus on one character: if you don't buy Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview, you won't buy the film.
I welcome the criticisms -- who needs sacred cows? -- and find them on the whole thought-provoking, even though many aren't even compatible. Over at Salon, Stephanie Zacharek echoes earlier sentiments -- by Dan Sallitt and others -- that the problem with Day-Lewis's performance lies in the obscure motivations of the character. "We may know what Plainview is feeling (or not feeling) by the look on his face," Zacharek writes, "but Day-Lewis, hampered by his heavy brocade cloak of technique, is less effective at navigating the fine gradations of action necessary to define a supposedly complex character. Why does Plainview feel and act the way he does? We never know."
Meanwhile, Jim Emerson, in a lively debate with Kathleen Murphy, thinks that Day-Lewis's histrionics oversell the role: "And that's the fatal miscalculation of this film and this performance: Day-Lewis isn't content to play this character; he stands apart from Plainview, judging him and telling us how we should feel about him, every step of the way."
To be fair, defenders of the actor (and the film) haven't been entirely consistent either. Some have argued that Plainview is actually representative of something larger -- as Murphy writes, "a force, a power, ultimately a blight that haunts America still." Others like Bill, a commenter to Dennis Cozzalio's year-in-review wrap-up from about a month ago, believes that some viewers of There Will Be Blood "(are) frustrated the film focuses on an oil baron and a religious fundamentalist, but doesn't play like an allegory or a metaphor....One of the things that I think is so great about it is that it is very specific. Plainview, to me, represents nobody but himself."
Having recently seen There Will Be Blood for a second time, I think I lean toward the latter view. Playing a symbol would be pretty heavy lifting, even for an actor of Day-Lewis's caliber; and unless we're talking about Milton or Spenser, allegorical stories don't strike me as being particularly interesting. Yet to return to Zacharek's critique, if Plainview represents nobody but himself, then who exactly is he?
Sandra M, a reader responding to Zacharek's piece, seems to me on the right track when she writes: "I find it extremely telling that Zacharek's review takes absolutely no stock of the historical time in which the movie takes place. Periods of time....do not just take place in an arbitrary goegraphical [sic] landscape, they DEFINE the landscape of not just the movie, but the character of Plainview himself." Indeed, one of the elements that impresses me about Day-Lewis's performance is the care to which he thinks and behaves like a turn-of-the-(20th)-century man.
The "napkin scene" -- perhaps second only to the climax of the movie in its notoriety -- is a good illustration of this. Late in the film, Plainview has just ordered drinks for himself and his son at a local tavern, only to have to wait for them when the bartender makes a big fuss over some competitors from Standard Oil who have just walked through the door. In response to this, Day-Lewis unfolds a long napkin, puts it over his head and boasts about having made a deal with Union Oil instead. Some have cited this scene as a textbook example of an actor hamming it up -- or, more charitably, that it's what may be called "an interesting choice." Others believe that Plainview doesn't want H.W. to read his lips, but he doesn't appear to say anything that he wouldn't want his son to hear. What I think is going on is Day-Lewis is conveying Plainview's disdain at being in the shadow of the Standard bigshots -- at feeling invisible in the room -- and does this with an imaginative use of a prop, in the manner that a man from his era might express himself.
Getting back to the Emerson-Murphy debate, Jim makes a keen observation that "(w)hile Day-Lewis and Plainview get bigger and drunker and crazier as it goes along, the movie constricts thematically and narrows to a terminal point, pinning Plainview to its canvas like an insect specimen." (More on this in a minute.) But I disagree with his earlier accusation that Day-Lewis doesn't fully inhabit the character. The actor's organic commitment is evident from Plainview's limping, bow-legged walk to how he moves his hands. Focusing on one scene (when Paul Sunday tips off Plainview about the oil beneath his family's farm) as an illustration of Anderson's craft, David Bordwell states: "It takes confidence to make a raised hand the climax of a scene, but the gesture gains its force by being the most aggressive moment in an arc of quietly accumulating tension." (Hat-tip to Chet Mellema for the link.) By pointing this out, I think Bordwell also effectively refutes the claim that Day-Lewis's performance is all showy tics and mannerisms. (Hard to do with your back to the camera.)
As I suggested in an earlier review, There Will Be Blood strikes me as the cinematic equivalent to a early 20th-century novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since it was adapted from one; but Anderson literally seems to be creating a visual language -- a narrative shorthand -- akin to the prose of those works. A comment by Harry Lime, in one of Jim Emerson's aformentioned posts, explicates this best:
"As I said in another post, (There Will Be Blood) has all the characteristics of a film directed by an old man: the austerity, the formalist's rigor, and the absence of sensational elements (sex, gore, pop music)....The final scene in the bowling alley, we see Anderson let go of the formalist's leash on Daniel Day-Lewis's grim mad dog. I think the direction over the acting in the bowling alley scene is actually expansive, and incongruous to the style of the rest of the film, which is why it's so strange and seems so out of place. Plainview doesn't just lose control, the film loses control. Just as a narrator in a Faulkner novel loses his grasp on sanity, so too does the prose become fragmented and disorienting."
Make no mistake, the varied readings by both critics and admirers are indicative that There Will Be Blood is a film to grapple with. I still struggle with my reaction, which is torn between awe at the climactic struggle between Plainview and Eli Sunday to finding it reductive. This is a movie that ends with no single interpretation or answer. To paraphrase the title of an episode of Deadwood -- a series that also pivoted around an individual of outsized ambition and his ongoing conflict with a character his opposite -- it is, at the very least, a two-headed beast.