Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting Our Hate On: The Fun and Fury in Panning Movies

It began as a tingle, followed by a buzz, then a full-fledged endorphin rush. An abstract thought became a physical sensation that consumed me for the better part of the evening. All the roiling passions that normally I suppress, like a handwringer in a Jane Austen novel, were cathartically unleashed. I felt a giddiness, a moment of clarity, and then I had the horrifying realization that M. Night Shyamalan was to thank for it. I hate M. Night Shyamalan, you see. I hate all his movies, even the ones I kind of like, even the ones I haven't seen. That a filmmaker can inspire such feelings is not one to be taken lightly, no matter how overrated or incompetent he might otherwise be. Writing about The Happening, sight unseen, something happened to me.

Movies are for anybody and everybody, but sometimes I wonder if it takes a movie buff to truly despise one. To feel personally betrayed by a film, to form demarcation lines between your likes and dislikes, to get so emotionally invested that all rationality is tossed out the window. Pauline Kael got angry at movies she felt let her down or otherwise offended her in some way. (Of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, she famously wrote: "He has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.") Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, either individually or in unison, were capable of obliterating a film that they loathed. Yet Siskel and Ebert could be savagely funny in their hatred, even made a gimmick of it early in their television career with a skunk mascot that would introduce the "Stinker of the Week." (Kael was sometimes hilarious too, though she could also come across as a killjoy.) But their pans weren't always fun and games. Readers of the current kid-gloves Ebert might be surprised to examine his disembowelment of Blue Velvet upon its initial 1986 release. Ebert and Lynch traded body blows for a good solid run through the 80s and early 90s; after they patched things up (somewhere around The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive), their dynamic became less interesting.

Grudge matches between critics and artists are rare these days. The former in the print media are generally too vulnerable and exposed to risk a major offensive, while the latter too hermetically sealed to touch. (When a stray brickbat does manage to reach the likes of Shyamalan or George Lucas, they tend to overreact violently, like Roman emperors scorching the earth in Germania.) Urbane types like Anthony Lane have it easier, as they produce what Matt Zoller Seitz has called a "cocktail party detachment" that is witty yet inoffensive. Despite his impersonality, I get a kick out of Lane. And I'm unduly fond of Joe Queenan, whose shticky misanthropy masks a deep and genuine affection for unloved "bad" movies. (Queenan's real ire is aimed at tony Hollywood gloss.) The same cannot be said for Charles Taylor, whose criticism, for all its keen insight, often feels like a nail driven into my skull, or for Armond White, whose Biblical sternness grows repetitive and wearisome. (The caption for White's take-down of The Happening -- "Shyamalan's a Ding-Dong" -- may be the only time I've ever laughed reading one of his reviews.) Even when you realize they have a point, you don't want to get anywhere near it.

I'm not sure if my hatred for All Things Shyamalan is amusing or off-putting; only that I, at least, have always enjoyed it. I couldn't believe the rain of roses that fell upon The Sixth Sense, and the movie's ardent fans couldn't believe that I couldn't believe it. I cringed at the film's melodramtic contrivances, starting with Donnie Wahlberg wailing in the bathroom and ending with the videotape of the mother-poisoner. I rolled my eyes at the mystical mumbo-jumbo that felt like the repertoire of a New Age huckster, particularly when juxtaposed with his facile shock tactics. I guessed the surprise ending fairly early on, and I'm normally terrible at that sort of thing; it was just obvious to me that Shyamalan had read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and seen Jacob's Ladder and fortunately (or unfortunately) I had too. In the years that followed, I hated the comparisons of Shyamalan to Hitchcock and Spielberg, his raging ego, his uncredited plagiarisms, his evangelical followers. Feeling like a pariah can produce one of two responses -- either you drink the Kool-Aid or you embrace your solitude, and when it came to Shyamalan I was smug with certainty that I Was Right.

Still, it was more fun to hate him in his heyday. Despite a sense of vindication from the gradually diminishing returns of Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Lady in the Water, and now The Happening, I'm now feeling a perverse impulse to defend him. I even laughed at Bob Balaban's deconstruction of his own demise in Lady in the Water (which I recently saw for the first time), a character and scene that became the bane of film critics everywhere. Do some of us soften with pity toward a reviled filmmaker when it seems that everyone else is dogpiling on top of him? Is our hatred intensified when we feel in the minority?

This certainly seems to be the case with There Will Be Blood, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson which, as everyone knows, received near unanimous raves when released earlier this year. I've often called Anderson the greatest director who pisses me off. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love all tried my patience to inexorable degrees, yet I stuck with them and, in retrospect, feel more affection toward them than to other movies I've enjoyed a whole lot more. Anderson is a polarizing figure, one whose fans are inadvertently cineastes and who lacks the populist base Shyamalan has (or perhaps had). His detractors, however, are equally fierce (one recently called Magnolia "quite simply the worst movie of all time") and like to use unflattering comparisons to Altman to buttress their arguments. (That Altman himself was one of Anderson's biggest admirers is conveniently overlooked.) Personally, I was surprised by how much I loved There Will Be Blood. Certain difficulties aside, I think it's his most accessible film, the cinematic equivalent of late-19th early-20th century "naturalist" novels, a lumbering epic with an intimate scale. It felt like a rarity, a movie for me; but I also could understand that it's not for everybody.

Even so, I was taken aback by the hostility of some toward the film and its director. I'm not referring to Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek, former admirers of Anderson, whose disdain is more understandable within its proper Paulette context. (Both, I'm willing to bet, were perturbed by the film's homages to Kubrick -- a favorite target of Kael's -- more than anything else.) Among the movie's most impassioned haters have been Odie Henderson, N.P. Thompson and Russell Brown. Odie, at least, knows how to craft a sharp, funny rant. (Responding to Ed Copeland's review, he wrote: "His fanboys call him 'P.T. Anderson' because it evokes another P.T.: P.T. Barnum. [Barnum] said 'There's a sucker born every minute.' I think Anderson's counting on it with this film, his most empty film ever.") Thompson, in contrast, hates so many different films in the same relentlessly unvaried manner that it's hard to take him seriously. (His infamous attack on Slate's film critics had more energy and wit.) Ditto Brown, with whom Thompson feels a deep kinship over There Will Be Blood. Brown's manifesto, written back in January, reiterates Odie's belief that Anderson's movie is a con-job and takes issue with what the author sees as numerous plot holes:

"So many character beats arrive and depart without explanation. Why does Plainview not bless the well? Why does Sunday never confront Plainview about not blessing the well? Why does Sunday's brother arrive and provide Plainview with the location of the oil? Why does Anderson imply that Sunday and his brother are the same person? How does Sunday get the money to build the new Church, if Plainview never gave him the $5,000? Why did Plainview never take his son to be healed, and then get angry at Sunday for not being able to heal him? Why did Plainview adopt the baby? Why does the grown up son suddenly hate his father so much? Why does the street-smart Plainview so easily accept a stranger as his brother? And then why does he suddenly turn and kill him, one scene after he discovers the truth? Why does Plainview's son try to burn down the house? Why does the son read the diary upside down? Why does Sunday tell us that the Bandy's son is handsome and wants to be an actor in Hollywood (is Sunday now gay?) If Sunday is such a successful radio preacher, is it really plausible that he would turn to Plainview after the stock market crash? Why does Sunday not age a single year over the entire run of the film?"

Brown's piling on specious inquiries reminds me of creationist rebukes against evolution. (Why do human beings have eyes? Why are there stars in the sky? Why do you want to make Baby Jesus cry?) It's hard to know where to start responding, given the sheer wrongheadedness of the context. I would suggest that it's blatantly obvious why Plainview doesn't bless the well: to piss off his rival Eli and undercut his power grab. Plainview accepts a stranger as his brother (actually half-brother) because that stranger produces a letter written by his mother as evidence, and also because it's clear Plainview feels isolated following H.W.'s loss of hearing. As for the confusion generated by Paul Dano's dual roles, at what point does Anderson "imply" that Eli and Paul Sunday are the same person? That they are brothers is mentioned on multiple occasions; frankly, I found it refreshing that the filmmaker didn't shoehorn in a slog of tedious exposition:

ELI: Hi, I'm Eli Sunday. Paul Sunday's brother. We're twins!
DANIEL PLAINVIEW: You're twins, you say?
ELI: Yes, we are twins. We were born at the same time. That is why we look the same.
H.W.: So the two of you are twins?
ELI: Yes, we are played by the same actor! Please, stay and have dinner with my family. Everybody will be there, except of course for my brother Paul, whom you met earlier in the movie. Did I mention we're twins?

Real con artists, like Shyamalan, treat their marks as children. He spells things out slowly, in big block letters. Anderson, in contrast, provides just enough hints to his characters' motives while retaining an aura of mystery. He has enough confidence in his audience that they'll figure things out for themselves.

Big mistake. Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I read so many near-willful misreadings of a movie -- even among its admirers, who have not helped their cause. (There Will Be Blood is a "horror-comedy" the way Schindler's List is a musical.) Brown echoes the claims by Zacharek and others that Day-Lewis's performance repeats the same beats over and over again (if you think the scene where Plainview spoons with H.W. following his accident is the same as everything that comes before it, you're too busy scribbling bogus questions in your notebook) and goes on to claim that the film doesn't tell us anything new about greed or religion. But is it really about those things? I think a commenter at Dennis Cozzalio's hit upon it when he speculated that what's throwing people about There Will Be Blood is actually that the characters are all too specific, that they don't represent anything but themselves. Like all of Anderson's films, There Will Be Blood is foremost about family. Plainview, for all his fortune, ends up imprisoned within his mansion; whereas his adopted son, despite a debilitating injury, finds love, makes connections with others and seizes a chance at freedom. The relationship between these two characters is the heart of the movie, and I found it interesting, complicated, tragic, unexpected and moving.

On the surface, there are reasons why I should love Shyalaman (striking visuals, appreciation of silence, aspirations for classical storytelling) and why I should hate Anderson (strenuousness, high decibel level, rampant emotionalism). That it's the opposite may be because Shyamalan is always claiming to have the answers, whereas Anderson is interested in the questions. A typical theme in a Shyamalan film is "believe in God or he'll kill your kids." A recurring theme in an Anderson film is the unpredictable nature of human beings. I'm not sure why H.W. starts the fire in There Will Be Blood, though I suspect it has to do with his feelings of estrangement due to his injury and the arrival of Plainview's alleged half-brother. In any case, the image forges a poetic link with the fiery engulfment of the oil derrick that preceeds it; it's an entry into the boy's unexpressed state of mind.

Emotions are equally unpredictable creatures. It's possible, perhaps even probable, that I'll hate one of P. T. Anderson's movies someday. And who knows, maybe M. Night Shyamalan will make a film that I love. But will I hate loving him as much as I love hating him? There truly is a thin line.


Ed Howard said...

I think Shymalan is probably the most interesting filmmaker I can think of who makes downright horrible movies. The whole conceit of The Village was so wrongheaded and stupid, and yet the film was filled with fascinating visuals and an interesting approach to period genre conventions. Lady in the Water is almost laughably bad in so many ways, and yet it's also undeniably unique, clearly the product of a highly idiosyncratic director making a deeply felt personal film rather than pumping out generic trash. He makes highly bizarre and unusual trash, instead. Even Signs, which is more mediocre than these interesting failures, has some very striking shots that have stayed with me despite my overall ambivalence about the film. I think the reason people respond to him so negatively -- besides his prodigious ego, which doesn't help -- is that his films are both unusual and striking, AND rather bad as well. That's not a common pairing. Usually a vision as idiosyncratic as Shymalan's in a director is something to praise, but in this case the films themselves are very hard to like. I have yet to see The Happening, but I must confess that in spite of the uniformly awful reviews, I'm curious to see it for myself.

As for There Will Be Blood, I can only say I completely agree with your excellent analysis of both the film and the responses to it. I've always liked Anderson's work a great deal, but nothing he did previously suggested he was capable of something like that. It's a really remarkable film, and I'm not sure anyone's really been able to do justice to everything going on it yet, myself included.

Craig said...

Your appraisal of Shyamalan is far more thorough and objective than mine. As I touched on briefly in my post, I finally saw Lady in the Water and was sort of taken by it for the reasons you mentioned. It's not any good, but it's the product of a filmmaker in the midst of a creative crisis and trying to work out some issues. Apparently he hasn't accomplished that yet.

As a remedy, for his next project, I propose that Shyamalan does what Anderson did and adapt somebody else's work. Choosing a different genre might not be a bad idea either: I'd love to see what he could do with a Jhumpa Lahiri novel. Even Hellboy 3 would be better than what he's cranking out on his own -- so long as he doesn't write the script (and if he does, he needs to get an editor).

As for There Will Be Blood, I agree that there's so much there, even after four viewings and three or four posts on the subject I haven't come close to uncovering all of it yet. It's a very unusual epic in that nearly the entire frame of reference is filtered through the main character's perspective. Everybody's heard of unreliable narrators, but this is an exceptional portrait of an unreliable perspective, which is achieved with more subtlety than Anderson has ever shown before. Usually in this type of film there are counterpoints with other characters discussing their reactions to the main character (like in Lawrence of Arabia), but Anderson leaves us alone to grapple with him. A brilliant example of this is the brothel scene, with the tight close-up on Day-Lewis, so that we only hear but never really see what's going on around the margins of the deliberately claustrophobic frame.

Anderson's great at giving hints of interpretation to things like that, rather than telling us what to think. Another great example is Henry, Plainview's fake half-brother, and how he fits into the narrative. (Plainview practically conjures him after H.W.'s accident.) We don't meet any of the workers traveling West off those trains to work in the oil fields but they do foreshadow Henry's arrival, and within a few scenes he becomes a vivid encapsulation of all those individuals, with his modest hopes and broken dreams. Kevin J. O'Connor's performance is essential and very unappreciated.

Thanks for your thoughtful response.

Ed Howard said...

Well, it's not quite what you or I want for Shymalan, but apparently his next big project will be an adaptation of some anime-influenced Nickolodeon kids' series called Avatar -- he's got a deal to do THREE of them, believe it or not. He's writing the scripts and directing, though, and it's live action while the original series was a cartoon, so who knows what the hell this is going to be like.

Personally, I would've loved it if he followed through on the long-stale rumors that he was going to direct an adaptation of Yann Martel's lightly magical realist adventure novel Life of Pi. With its mix of horror, suspense, and fantasy, that would've been a perfect fit for Shymalan's sensibilities, and a chance for him to deal with a story other than his own, hopefully focusing purely on the myriad visual possibilities of the material. But it looks like that's not gonna happen now, unfortunately.

You're spot on about the way Anderson's film focuses on Plainview's perspective, even on the rare occasions when he's outside of the frame. And the brothel scene you pinpoint is indicative of a very specific type of exclusion -- there is no sexuality within the frame in this film, because there is no room for sexuality in Plainview's worldview. That would be a form of intimate connection that would, presumably, never interest a man with such ambivalent relations to other people. So in the midst of all this noise and messy human interaction, there's Plainview sitting stoically, the background a complete blur in which we can see nothing, the framing tight on his face. And this is the moment, of course, where he realizes that this man could never be a relative of his.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: I'd been saving this for a rainy day, and it's terrific reading. Thanks! You might be reaching a bit that the typical Shyamalan theme is "believe in God or he'll kill your kids." I think it's simpler than that. Sweeter. Disney-er. It's just about belief in something magical, period.

Nothing to quibble with in your thoughts on "There Will Be Blood," however. I hadn't seen Brown's "manifesto," but I'm stunned at the number of questions he poses that have very obvious and simple answers. About half of them, I'd say. And the others might not have simple answers, but that doesn't mean they're plot holes.

"If you think the scene where Plainview spoons with H.W. following his accident is the same as everything that comes before it, you're too busy scribbling bogus questions in your notebook."

Amen, brother! Nice job.

Craig said...


I'll grant that "believe in God or he'll kill your kids" -- quoting Edelstein's enjoyably hateful review of Signs -- is taking things to extremes. On the other hand, Shyamalan is supposed to be a master of horror, or suspense, or the next Hitchberg or Spielcock or whomever. He more than dabbles in pain and death, so I don't think his motives are completely innocuous. Which wouldn't bother me so much if he weren't so cheap and underhanded about it.

And thank you for confirming my own feelings about Brown's litany against There Will Be Blood. I've read enough of these types of questions from so many quarters that it makes me wonder if a different cut of the film has been floating around out there. I mean, jeez, some of these same people (and some of them are fine critics) are sharp enough to uncover meaty subtext in bargain-basement Spielberg or DePalma, but an emotionally complex yet relatively straightforward story about an oilman leaves them befuddled?